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