North Korean forces shoot de­fect­ing soldier

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Hyung-Jin Kim

The soldier, who bolted from a guard post at a jointly con­trolled area at the bor­der, was taken to a South Korean hos­pi­tal.

North Korean sol­diers shot at and wounded a fel­low soldier who was cross­ing a jointly con­trolled area at the heav­ily guarded bor­der to de­fect to South Korea on Mon­day, the South’s mil­i­tary said.

North Korean sol­diers have oc­ca­sion­ally de­fected to South Korea across the bor­der. But it’s rare for a North Korean soldier to de­fect via the Joint Se­cu­rity Area, where bor­der guards of the ri­val Koreas stand fac­ing each other just feet away, and be shot by fel­low North Korean sol­diers.

The soldier bolted from a guard post at the north­ern side of Pan­munjom vil­lage in the Joint Se­cu­rity Area to the south­ern side of the vil­lage, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a state­ment. 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.

South Korean troops found the in­jured soldier south of the bor­der af­ter hear­ing sounds of gun­fire, a South Korean De­fense Min­istry of­fi­cial said, re­quest­ing anonymity, cit­ing depart­ment rules. South Korean troops didn’t fire at the North, he said.

The defection came at a time of height­ened ten­sion over North Korea’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram, and could es­ca­late an­i­mosi­ties be­tween the ri­val coun­tries. North Korea has typ­i­cally ac­cused South Korea of en­tic­ing its cit­i­zens to de­fect, some­thing the South de­nies.

About 30,000 North Kore­ans have de­fected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, but most travel through China.

Pan­munjom, once an ob­scure farm­ing vil­lage inside the 2 ½-mile-wide Demil­i­ta­rized Zone that sep­a­rates the two Koreas, is where an armistice was signed to pause the Korean War. Jointly con­trolled by the Amer­i­can-led U.N. Com­mand and North Korea, the DMZ is guarded on both sides by hun­dreds of thou­sands of com­bat-ready troops, ra­zor­wire fences and tank traps. More than a mil­lion mines are be­lieved to be buried inside the zone.

Amer­i­can pres­i­dents of­ten visit Pan­munjom and other DMZ ar­eas dur­ing their trips to South Korea to reaf­firm their se­cu­rity com­mit­ment to the South.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump planned to visit the DMZ to un­der­score his stance against North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram when he came to South Korea last week as part of an Asian tour, but his plans were thwarted by heavy fog that pre­vented his he­li­copter from land­ing at the bor­der area.

At Pan­munjom, North Korean sol­diers wear­ing lapel pins with the images of late North Korean lead­ers of­ten use binoc­u­lars to mon­i­tor vis­i­tors from the South. They stand only sev­eral yards away from tall South Korean sol­diers wear­ing avi­a­tor sun­glasses and stand­ing mo­tion­less like stat­ues. This makes the area a pop­u­lar stop for vis­i­tors from both sides.

Ar­eas around Pan­munjom were the site of blood­shed and defection at­tempts by North Kore­ans in the past, but there have been no such in­ci­dents in re­cent years.

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