A Korean Killing with Terrible Timing

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Jung Yeon-Je/ AFP / Getty

North Korean soldiers look on as a South Korean soldier, left, stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom in the DMZ

Park Wang ja, a 53-year-old housewife from Seoul, had gotten up extra early to see the sunrise on Friday morning. She was strolling on the beach near the Mount Geumgang tourist resort in North Korea, and she was not alone. Five other tourists had also gotten up early to catch the sunrise from the beach at Mount Geumgang. For South Koreans, it is a special vantage point from which to welcome the day; it lies about 21 miles (34 km) north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has divided the two Koreas for more than 50 years. Park was one of the roughly 200,000 South Koreans who annually visit the tourist area, which Hyundai opened in 1998 — one of the first tangible symbols of what came to be known as the South's "Sunshine" diplomacy with its archenemy Pyongyang.

The sunrise Park glimpsed would be the last she'd ever see. Strolling not far from the beach, she apparently ventured into a restricted area, albeit one not particularly well marked, according to an eyewitness, Lee In Bok, a 23-year-old college student from the South. What happened next is in dispute. Lee says he heard two shots ring out, about 10 seconds apart. One struck Park in the leg, the other in the chest. She staggered and fell to the ground. According to Lee, three North Korean soldiers ran out of the nearby woods and gently kicked Park's body to see if she was dead. She was.

South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman, Kim Ho-nyoun, quoting what North Korean officials told the resort operator, said soldiers shouted numerous warnings to Park, who had wandered about a mile into the restricted area. After she didn't respond to the verbal warnings, one of the soldiers fired a warning shot. Park didn't respond, so the soldiers fired the fatal shots. (Lee says he heard only two shots, not three.)

The timing of the incident, given the delicate juncture of the outside world's diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, could hardly have been worse. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak learned of Park's murder just 90 minutes before he was scheduled to give a speech setting out a new course for North-South relations — in effect abandoning the harder line he had come to office preaching. Lee gave the speech despite the furor that he and his aides knew would follow once news of the killing became public in the South later that afternoon. Lee's speech included no mention of the Mount Geumgang incident.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, diplomats from the countries engaged in the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea were gathering over the weekend to push forward on the next, critical step on the road to Pyongyang's ostensible nuclear disarmament: the plan for a verification program that would give the outside world confidence that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is abiding by his word to stand down his nukes. On Saturday, China's delegate to the talks announced that Pyongyang had in fact agreed to the broad outlines of a deal to let international inspectors visit North Korean nuclear sites, review documents and interview technical personnel. The North also said it would allow the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to be part of the verification team, even though in 2003 Pyongyang pulled out of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and expelled U.N. inspectors from the country.

Later, Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the talks, spoke optimistically about getting a specific, detailed road map for verification negotiated with the North within 45 days. "We don't see any obstacles to getting that done," Hill told reporters in Beijing.

Others, both privately and publicly, were not so upbeat. "The inspection regime was always going to be the toughest nut to crack, and now we just have to have at it," says one former diplomat with long experience dealing with the North. "If they get this done within 45 days, I'll be amazed." South Korea's current envoy to the talks, Kim Sook, agreed. "I am not optimistic about what's ahead. Implementing the verification guidelines will be a very difficult job."

It will be made even more difficult by the rage Park's murder at Mount Geumgang has stoked in the South. Hill and others in the six-party talks have been steadfast in not letting any outside issue get in the way of a deal on the North's nukes. Japan is still furious over Pyongyang's less-than-full account of the Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and '80s, while members of the Bush Administration remain apoplectic that the North would apparently pay no price for its alleged aid to Syria for a nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed last September. (They are also skeptical that Pyongyang will ever come clean about its alleged uranium-enrichment program, which U.S. negotiators believe it developed along with the plutonium program it is now shutting down.) Now, as Park Wang Ja heads home for a funeral, Seoul will be forced to "keep our eye on the nuclear ball and just keep negotiating, despite this incident," as one former diplomat put it. "We just have to make sure the North keeps its word [on the nuclear] deal," says the former six-party negotiator. "It's why the next round of negotiations [on verification] are so vital. It's that simple — and that complicated."

— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul