North Korean sol­dier de­fects to South Korea de­spite be­ing shot

Santa Fe New Mexican - - NATION & WORLD - By Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean troops fired on a fel­low sol­dier who was de­fect­ing to South Korea on Mon­day across the heav­ily armed bor­der di­vid­ing the coun­tries, South Korean of­fi­cials said, amid height­ened ten­sions over the North’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

The sol­dier was shot but suc­ceeded in reach­ing the South, its mil­i­tary said in a state­ment.

The North Korean sol­dier de­fected through Pan­munjom, a vil­lage that strad­dles the bor­der be­tween the two Koreas. Alerted by gun­shots, South Korean guards found the North Korean sol­dier about 55 yards south of the bor­der line that bi­sects Pan­munjom.

He was taken to a hos­pi­tal with gun­shot wounds to an el­bow and shoul­der, South Korean of­fi­cials said.

His de­fec­tion took place while a joint naval ex­er­cise in­volv­ing three U.S. air­craft car­ri­ers was be­ing con­ducted in wa­ters off South Korea’s east coast.

It was the first time in a decade that the U.S. Navy had mo­bi­lized three car­rier groups in the same drill in the western Pa­cific, and it rep­re­sented the show of force that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has said Amer­i­cans “hope to God we never have to use” against North Korea.

North Korea has re­mained de­fi­ant, call­ing Trump a “dotard” again Satur­day and in­sist­ing that it will never give up its pur­suit of nu­clear weapons.

The de­fec­tor drove a ve­hi­cle to­ward the bor­der­line inside Pan­munjom, and then left the ve­hi­cle, run­ning south while he was fired upon by other North Korean sol­diers, ac­cord­ing to the U.S.-led United Na­tions Com­mand, which over­sees the 1953 ar­mistice that halted the Korean War.

He took cover near a build­ing on the south­ern side of the Joint Se­cu­rity Area in Pan­munjom be­fore South Korean and U.S. troops came to his aid and took him to a hos­pi­tal, the com­mand said in a state­ment.

The Joint Se­cu­rity Area, which is 35 miles north of Seoul, the cap­i­tal, was es­tab­lished af­ter North Korea and its com­mu­nist ally China signed the ar­mistice with the United Na­tions Com­mand, which fought on South Korea’s be­half.

The area is the only place along the bor­der where troops from North and South Korea face off, sep­a­rated by only a few feet.

A North Korean sol­dier last de­fected at the heav­ily guarded lo­ca­tion in 2007.

More than 30,000 North Kore­ans have fled to the South since a wide­spread famine hit the im­pov­er­ished North in the late 1990s. Nearly all of them have trav­eled through China.

But a few North Korean sol­diers and civil­ians have de­fected by cross­ing the 2.5-mile-wide demil­i­ta­rized zone, which is guarded by mine­fields, sen­try posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some elec­tri­fied.

In 2012, a North Korean sol­dier scaled three barbed-wire fences to de­fect to the South. That same year, an­other North Korean sol­dier fled across the bor­der af­ter killing his pla­toon and squadron lead­ers. In 2015, af­ter walk­ing across the bor­der, a North Korean sol­dier told South Korean in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he was flee­ing wide­spread beat­ings and other abuse within his mil­i­tary bar­racks.

The demil­i­ta­rized zone is one of the world’s most heav­ily armed bor­ders. Guards on both sides stay alert against pos­si­ble in­trud­ers or de­fec­tors.

In 2013, South Korean sol­diers shot and killed a South Korean man who was try­ing to cross a river near the bor­der.

In 1984, a gun­fight erupted at Pan­munjom when a cit­i­zen from what was then the Soviet Union dashed across the bor­der to de­fect to the West. North Korean troops opened fire to stop him, and South Korean bor­der guards fired back. One South Korean sol­dier and three North Korean bor­der guards were killed.

Sep­a­rately on Mon­day, the South Korean mil­i­tary said it had de­tained an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, who had been ap­proach­ing the in­ter-Korean bor­der.

South Korean de­fense, po­lice and in­tel­li­gence spokes­men all con­firmed the de­ten­tion of an Amer­i­can, but none would pro­vide de­tails on the record.

The U.S. Em­bassy in Seoul said it was aware of the re­port but could not pro­vide fur­ther de­tails.

In 2014, an Amer­i­can was de­tained by South Korean troops on a river­bank near the western bor­der af­ter try­ing to swim to the North. Af­ter he was ap­pre­hended, he told of­fi­cials that he had in­tended to go to North Korea to meet its leader, Kim Jong Un.

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