North Kore­ans fired 40 rounds at de­fect­ing sol­dier, South Korea says

The Guardian Australia - - World News / Opinion -

North Korean soldiers fired about 40 rounds at a com­rade flee­ing into South Korea and hit him five times, the south’s mil­i­tary has said.

South Korean soldiers did not fire their weapons, but Mon­day’s in­ci­dent oc­curred at a time of height­ened an­i­mos­ity over North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gramme. The north has ex­pressed in­tense anger over past high-pro­file de­fec­tions. It was the first shoot­ing at the jointly con­trolled area of the heav­ily for­ti­fied bor­der in more than 30 years.

The sol­dier is be­ing treated at a South Korean hos­pi­tal af­ter a five-hour op­er­a­tion for the gun­shot wounds he suf­fered dur­ing his es­cape across the joint se­cu­rity area (JSA). His per­sonal de­tails and mo­tive for de­fec­tion are un­known.

South Korea’s mil­i­tary said on Tues­day that he had suf­fered in­juries to his in­ter­nal or­gans but was not in a life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion. But the Ajou Univer­sity med­i­cal cen­tre near Seoul said the sol­dier was re­ly­ing on a breath­ing ma­chine af­ter the surgery. Lee Guk-jong, a doc­tor who leads Ajou’s med­i­cal team for the sol­dier, de­scribed his pa­tient’s con­di­tion as “very dan­ger­ous” and said the next 10 days might de­ter­mine whether he re­cov­ered.

He first drove a mil­i­tary jeep dur­ing his es­cape but left the ve­hi­cle when one of its wheels fell into a ditch. He then fled across the JSA with North Korean soldiers chas­ing and fir­ing at him, South Korea’s mil­i­tary said, cit­ing un­spec­i­fied sur­veil­lance sys­tems in­stalled in the area.

Suh Wook, chief di­rec­tor of op­er­a­tions for South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, told law­mak­ers that North Korean forces had fired a to­tal of about 40 rounds in a shoot­ing that his of­fice sug­gested had started while the sol­dier was in the jeep.

The sol­dier was found be­neath a pile of leaves on the south­ern side of the JSA and South Korean troops crawled there to re­cover him. A UN com­mand he­li­copter later trans­ported him to the Ajou med­i­cal cen­tre, ac­cord­ing to South Korean of­fi­cials.

North Korea’s of­fi­cial me­dia had not re­ported the case as of Tues­day af­ter­noon. They have pre­vi­ously ac­cused South Korea of kid­nap­ping or en­tic­ing North Kore­ans to de­fect. About 30,000 North Kore­ans have fled to South Korea, mostly via China, since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.

The JSA is jointly over­seen by the Amer­i­can-led UN com­mand and by North Korea, with South Korean and North Korean bor­der guards fac­ing each other only me­tres apart. It is lo­cated in­side the 2.5-mile-wide (4km) de­mil­i­tarised zone (DMZ) that has formed the de facto bor­der be­tween the Koreas since the Korean war. While both sides of the DMZ are guarded by barbed-wire fences, mines and tank traps, the JSA in­cludes the truce vil­lage of Pan­munjom, which pro­vides the site for rare talks and draws cu­ri­ous tourists.

Mon­day’s in­ci­dent was the first shoot­ing at the JSA since North Korean and UN com­mand soldiers traded gun­fire when a Soviet cit­i­zen de­fected by sprint­ing to the South Korean sec­tor of the JSA in 1984.

The wounded North Korean sol­dier is rushed to hos­pi­tal af­ter be­ing shot while de­fect­ing to South Korea. Pho­to­graph: Yon­hap/EPA

Lee Guk-jong, who car­ried out surgery on the North Korean sol­dier, speaks to jour­nal­ists at Ajou Univer­sity med­i­cal cen­tre. Pho­to­graph: AFP/Getty Images

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