North Korea has expressed its condolences over the sinking of a South Korean ferry in a telephone message through its Red Cross Society, the unification ministry said Wednesday.
The message under the name of Kang Su-rin, the chief of the Red Cross Society of North Korea, was sent to Yoo Jung-keun, the president of the (South) Korean Red Cross, the ministry said.
Of 476 people on board, 174 people survived the sinking of the 6,325-ton ferry Sewol. One hundred and fifty have been confirmed dead, with 152 people still missing as of noon on Wednesday.
"In the message, the North expressed its deep sorrow over the many victims of the disaster," the ministry said.
The North's condolences are the first of their kind since 2003, when a subway fire and typhoon Maemi rocked the country. The South has yet to respond to the North's message, ministry officials said.
The South conveyed its condolences over flooding in North Korea in 2006.
The (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North's official media, confirmed the delivery of the condolence message in an English-language report.
"The Central Committee of the Red Cross Society of the DPRK Wednesday sent a message of sympathy to the South Korean Red Cross," it said, adding "The message expressed deep sympathy as regards the sinking of the ferry 'Sewol' in waters off Jin Island, South Jolla Province on April 16 claiming many casualties including young schoolchildren and leaving many persons missing."
North Korea experts said that the North's move seems to be intended to improve chilly inter-Korean ties.
"Saying it will keep an eye on President Park Geun-hye's stance on inter-Korean relations, the North sent its condolence message (over the disaster). It appears to be the North's intention to thaw the frozen inter-Korean relationship," said Yang Moo-jin, a political scientist at the University of North Korean Studies. "It remains to be seen whether the North carries out its fourth nuclear test."
Earlier in the day, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland handling inter-Korean affairs said an improvement in inter-Korean ties wholly depends on Park's stance, outlining 10 demands including the withdrawal of the South's May 24 sanctions.
In May 2010, the South imposed sanctions against the North in response to the March sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which is alleged to have been torpedoed by the North.
It has been reported that the North is preparing for its fourth nuclear test ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Asian countries including South Korea this month.
A unification ministry official said the South Korean government has decided not to respond to the North's demands one by one. (Yonhap)