Seoul (AFP) – North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un personally saw off a train repatriating the bodies of dozens of Chinese tourists who were killed in a bus accident as he issued a fresh apology to Beijing over the tragedy, state media reported Thursday.
Thirty-two Chinese tourists and four North Koreans perished when a bus they were travelling in plunged off a bridge south of Pyongyang Sunday night, according to Chinese officials. Two other Chinese nationals were injured.
Beijing is the isolated regime’s sole major ally, providing an important economic and political buffer against international opprobrium.
The crash has sparked a series of rare mea culpas on North Korea’s tightly controlled propaganda network in which Kim has taken centre stage both in responding to the crash and apologising to China.
In two new dispatches on Thursday morning, the North’s state-run KCNA news agency said Kim went to Pyongyang’s station on Wednesday evening “to see off a special purpose train carrying the bodies of Chinese who were killed and the wounded in a tragic traffic accident”.
The KCNA report described Kim personally making arrangements for the train and offering “words of consolation” to the survivors.
A separate report from KCNA carried a “message of consolation” from Kim to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“We make a deep apology to the Chinese comrades for the pain which cannot be alleviated with any word, consolation and compensation,” KCNA quoted the message as saying.
KCNA ran a similar personal apology from Kim on Tuesday after the North Korean leader visited survivors in hospital and called on the Chinese embassy.
Although such moves might be unsurprising in other countries, it is unusual for state media to portray Kim in this manner, with the North Korean leader usually shown presiding over formal meetings or visiting work or army units.
North Korea state media rarely carries any negative news about the tightly controlled state or its leadership.
The fulsomeness of Kim’s comments reflects the importance of China — and its tourists — to his country and economy.
China is by far the biggest source of tourists for the North, with direct flights and a long land border connecting the neighbour, and tens of thousands are believed to visit every year, many crossing via train through the Chinese border city of Dandong.