Yesterday, we shared the story of one brazen North Korean soldier’s journey across the heavily fortified DMZ into South Korea - one of the most daring defections by a North Korean in recent memory. But since then, more details about the defection have emerged. The unidentified man was shot an astonishing seven times - and surgeons were able to remove five bullets from his person.
Indeed, it was the first time since 2007 that a soldier successfully defected across the border, Reuters reported.
The DMZ is a four-kilometer long expanse riddled with landmines. Defectors only rarely make it across alive, given the presence of snipers on both sides of the border. Fortunately, the North Korean soldier is expected to survive, though he remained in critical condition on Tuesday.
Giving little warning, the soldier suddenly bolted from a guard post at the northern side of Panmunjom village, a once-obscure farming village inside the DMZ. He was shot in the shoulder and elbow and was taken to a South Korean hospital, the South’s Defense Ministry said. It wasn’t immediately known how serious the soldier’s injuries were or why he decided to defect.
Reuters provided more details about the escape:
The soldier had on Monday sped toward the border in a “peace village” in the heavily guarded demilitarized zone, in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
But when a wheel came loose, he fled on foot as four North Korean soldiers fired about 40 rounds at him, said Suh Wook, chief director of operations at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefing lawmakers.
“Until this morning, we heard he had no consciousness and was unable to breathe on his own but his life can be saved,” Suh said.
Surgeons had removed five bullets from the soldier’s body, leaving two inside, Suh added, to murmurs from lawmakers who said the soldier’s escape was “right out of a movie”.
The soldier managed to get out of the line of fire when he took cover behind a South Korean structure in a Joint Security Area inside the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
South Korean and US soldiers, fearing more North Korean fire, later crawled to him to rescue him, the United Nations Command said in a separate statement.
North Korea has not said anything about the soldier. Its military had not given any indication of unusual movements on Tuesday, the South’s military said. Typically, the North will announce that defectors have been kidnapped by Southern agents.
While on average more than 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year, most travel via China. It is highly unusual for a North Korean to cross the land border dividing the two Koreas, which have been in a technical state of war since the Korean war ended in 1953 with an armistice, but no formal declaration of peace.
The UN Command, in place since the end of the war, said an investigation into the incident was being conducted.
South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo said it was the first time North Korean soldiers had fired toward the South’s side of the border, prompting some lawmakers to complain that soldiers should’ve returned fire.
Moon Sang-gyun, the South’s defense ministry spokesman, said military operations at the JSA were usually conducted under the orders of the UN Command, which is in turn under orders from the US military.
The soldier, who was not armed, was flown in a UN Command helicopter to an operating theater where doctors began working to save him even before he was out of a uniform that indicated he held a lower rank, Suh said.
South Korean officials have yet to reveal where the soldier came from or what his motive for defection might’ve been.
Lee Cook-jong, the surgeon in charge of the soldier’s care at the Ajou University Hospital, told reporters he was suffering from critical intestinal damage.
The UN military armistice commission said it had informed the North Korean military that the soldier, who was found about 50 meters (150 feet) south of a Military Demarcation Line, was undergoing surgery.
Suh said the South had also informed the North on Monday of the soldier and his treatment by informing them through loudspeakers at the border. This month, the North demanded that South Korea return 12 waitresses it said had been kidnapped while working in China in 2016. South Korea said the 12 women, and one man, had chosen to defect to the South.
While North Korea hasn’t said anything yet about the defection, or tried to blame it on South Korea, US or Japanese agents, as news of the brazen defection circulates in western media, the incident could strain relations between the US and North Korea just as they were starting to settle.