South Korean military says North Korean soldier defects across border to South
- Officials in the Seoul say there were no unusual movements by the North’s military in response to the defection
A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Saturday, across the heavily fortified land border which the two sides have begun to demilitarise as relations warm, the South’s military said.
The rare defection came as the two Koreas push ahead with a process of reconciliation in an effort to ease tensions, despite talks between Pyongyang and Washington on the North’s nuclear weapons programme stalling.
The incident did not trigger any gunfire, unlike last year when a North Korean soldier ran across under a hail of bullets from his own side.
“A North Korean soldier was detected crossing the military demarcation line” by South Korean troops using surveillance equipment, the military Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
“Related agencies plan to investigate him regarding the details of how he came to the South,” it said.
The JCS gave no further details, such as the location of the defection, the soldier’s name, rank and unit or whether he was carrying a weapon.
“The soldier is safely in our custody”, it said.
The last defection involving North Koreans occurred in May when two civilians on a small boat fled to the South across the Yellow Sea.
In November last year, a North Korean soldier drove to the heavily guarded border at speed and ran across under fire from his own comrades.
He was hit several times in the dramatic defection at Panmunjom truce village, a major tourist attraction and the only place on the frontier where forces from the two sides come face-to-face.
The soldier, Oh Chong-song, told a Japanese newspaper last month that he had been drinking after getting into unspecified trouble with his friends. He said he kept going after breaking through a checkpoint in a military jeep because he became fearful of being executed.
Three other soldiers reportedly crossed the land border last year in separate incidents.
In 2012 a North Korean soldier walked unchecked through rows of electrified fencing and surveillance cameras, prompting Seoul to sack three field commanders for a security lapse.
More than 30,000 North Korean civilians have fled their homeland since the peninsula was divided at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.
Most flee across the porous frontier with neighbouring China and it is very rare for them to cross the closely guarded inter-Korean border, which is fortified with minefields and barbed wire.
In recent months, however, the two sides have begun to remove landmines and destroy military bunkers along the border as part of efforts to improve long-strained relations.
They have also begun work to reconnect a railway line and repair another rail link across the border.
Despite the warming ties, it remains unclear whether the North’s leader Kim Jong-un will make his first-ever visit to the South this year, as Seoul is hoping.
Kim agreed to travel to Seoul after hosting his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang in September for their third summit but prospects of a fourth Moon-Kim meeting have recently dimmed, with negotiations on denuclearising the North grinding to a halt.
In an apparent bid to encourage a hesitating Kim to commit to a trip, Moon elicited an expression of support for such a visit from US President Donald Trump at a summit in Buenos Aires on Friday.
“The two leaders agreed Chairman Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul would provide additional momentum to their joint efforts to establish peace on the Korean peninsula,” Moon’s chief press secretary Yoon Young-chan said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press