North Korea Blames South Korea for Tourist's Shooting Death; Likely to Raise Tensions

A defiant North Korea blamed South Korea for the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in the communist nation and refused Saturday to cooperate in an investigation, further jeopardizing a bid by Seoul's new president to reverse a deepening chill in relations with Pyongyang.

While making a brief expression of regret over the woman shot Friday by a North Korean soldier, the North demanded Seoul apologize for its "intolerable insult" of suspending trips to a North Korean mountain resort — and said it would not allow visitors anyway until the South did so.

Tensions between the Koreas have flared since South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in February. His government has criticized alleged human rights abuses in the North and has been skeptical of offering unconditional aid to the impoverished country, a sharp departure from the previous decade of liberal Seoul leaders.

Lee proposed resuming stalled reconciliation talks with Pyongyang in a speech to parliament Friday, just hours after the tourist death and before it was publicized, though Lee himself knew of the incident.

On Saturday, Lee denounced the killing of 53-year-old housewife Park Wang-ja and urged the North to cooperate in the investigation.

"What cannot and should not happen has happened," Lee told a security ministers' meeting, according to his office.

"I can't understand that they shot a civilian tourist" at a time of day when it was possible to discern she was a civilian, Lee said, and urged Pyongyang to "actively cooperate" in an investigation.

The North later Saturday expressed regret over the death in a statement from its tourism bureau. But it said the tourist "intruded deep into the area under the military control of the North side all alone at dawn," noting that "even (her) shoes got wet."

The North said its soldier spotted the tourist and ordered her to stop, but she ran away. The soldier "repeatedly shouted at (her) to stop" and fired warning shots, but then "could not but open fire" at the woman, according to the statement from the Guidance Bureau for Comprehensive Development of Scenic Spots.

"The responsibility for the incident entirely rests with the South side," the bureau said in the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The North also rejected a South Korean request for investigators to visit the scene, claiming it has already clarified what happened with Hyundai Asan, the South Korean tour company that runs the trips to the mountain on the peninsula's eastern coast.

The South Korean government did not immediately respond to the statement from Pyongyang, its first public acknowledgment of the shooting.

Also Saturday, the head of Hyundai Asan left for the North to meet officials, visit the shooting site, and urge the government to agree to a joint investigation.

A tourist who returned from the resort Friday said he was watching the sunrise with five others when he saw the middle-aged woman dressed in black walking along the beach before hearing two gunshots and a scream about 10 minutes later.

"When I looked at the direction where the gunshots were heard, there was one person collapsed and three soldiers ran out of a forest and touched the person with their feet as if trying to see if that person is alive," Lee In-bok, 23, a college student, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

Park's husband, Bang Young-min, 53, said he hopes for the truth of what happened.

"I hope all suspicions would be resolved ... so that the souls of the deceased can rest in peace," he said at a hospital in Seoul where Park's body was kept for a funeral.

South Korean media called for a thorough investigation and expressed outrage.

"Where in the world would a soldier fire on a helpless female tourist for crossing into a restricted zone near a hotel at a tourist site?" the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire, but they have developed warmer ties during a decade of liberal South Korean governments starting in the late 1990s. Two summits have been held between leaders of the North and South since 2000.