S Korean minister apologises for border lapse

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 3:06pm

South Korea’s defence minister apologised on Monday for a security lapse that allowed a defecting North Korean soldier to walk unchecked across one of the world’s most fortified borders.

At a press conference broadcast live on TV, Kim Kwan-jin announced that an army division commander and two field commanders had been dismissed from their posts as a result of the incident earlier this month.

“I acknowledge that the North Korean soldier’s defection apparently shows the failure of security and flaws in the emergency reporting system,” Kim said.

“I sincerely apologise for causing concerns to the people,” he added.

The 22-year-old North Korean soldier defected on October 2, making his way through rows of electrified fencing dividing the two Koreas under cover of darkness.

Initially, military officials said he had been picked up by surveillance cameras and guided to safety.

But an investigation found the soldier had crossed completely undetected and resorted to turning himself in at the barracks of a frontline South Korean unit after his knocks on the door of another guard post went unanswered.

The incident, at a time of heightened cross-border tensions, prompted an outcry in the South Korean media, and saw President Lee Myung-bak censure the defence minister and urge him to punish those responsible.

The defence ministry said it had taken disciplinary measures against five general-grade officers and nine mid-level officers at frontline units and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The commander of the army division guarding the northeastern section of the border and two field commanders under his control were removed from their posts, it said.

Three officers were referred to military prosecutors for court martial, while others will appear before a disciplinary committee.

The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula between North and South was created after the 1950-1953 Korean war.

Four kilometres wide and 248 kilometres long, it is a depopulated no-man’s land of heavily-fortified fences, bristling with the landmines and listening posts of two nations that technically remain at war.

Military defections across the land border are rare, but at least three North Korean soldiers have crossed over since August, including one who said he shot dead two superiors in the process.