Less than a week after an unusually heavy bout of fog forced President Donald Trump to cancel a hastily scheduled visit to the DMZ, one North Korean soldier succeeded in pulling off one of the most extraordinarily brazen defections in recent memory when he bolted across the heavily fortified four-kilometer border area, successfully completing his trip to the South despite being shot twice by his fellow troops.
The New York Times reported that the North Korean soldier defected through Panmunjom, a village that straddles the border between the two Koreas. Alerted by gunshots, South Korean guards found the North Korean soldier about 55 yards south of the border line that bisects Panmunjom. He was taken to a hospital with gunshot wounds to an elbow and shoulder, South Korean officials said.
As the Associated Press pointed out, North Korean soldiers have occasionally defected to South Korea across the border. But it’s rare for a North Korean soldier to defect by fleeing across the Joint Security Area, where border guards of the rival Koreas stand facing each other just meters away. The fact that he was shot twice during it makes his success all the more improbable.
The soldier bolted from a guard post at the northern side of Panmunjom village, a once-obscure farming village inside the DMZ. He entered South Korea through the southern side of the village, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. 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.
As the soldier was making his escape, the US Navy was conducting an unprecedented show of force in the waters off the peninsula as three US aircraft carriers participated in the drills – the first time in 13 years that three aircraft carriers were mobilized at once.
According to the New York Times, more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the South since a widespread famine hit the impoverished North in the late 1990s. Nearly all of them have traveled through China. But a handful of North Korean soldiers and civilians have defected by crossing the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone, which is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.
American presidents often visit Panmunjom and other DMZ areas when they travel to South Korea, but President Trump didn’t seem keen on visiting, perhaps because of the continuing war of words between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Though for the first time, Trump appeared to try and temper his rhetoric (by Trump standards, of course) over the weekend when he tweeted that “someday” Kim and he might become friends.
The last time a soldier successfully crossed through the country’s southern border was in 2012, when a North Korean soldier scaled three barbed-wire fences to defect to the South. That same year, another North Korean soldier fled across the border after killing his platoon and squadron leaders. In 2015, after walking across the border, a North Korean soldier told South Korean investigators that he was fleeing widespread beatings and other abuse within his military barracks.
While defections by South Koreans to the North are much rarer, they do happen: In 2013, South Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean man who was trying to cross a river at the western end of the border.
Interestingly, South Korean military said Monday they had detained an American citizen, who had been approaching the inter-Korean border.
Panmunjom was famously the site of a full-blown diplomatic crisis in 1976, when two American army officers were killed by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers while attempting to chop down a poplar tree that was blocking the view of UN observers. The North Korean soldiers claimed the tree had been planted by Kim Il Sung – a story that turned out to be false.
In response, American and South Korean forces launched Operation Paul Bunyan, sending a swarm of armed soldiers to chop down the tree in a show of force that quickly prompted the North to back down.