Fri, Dec 22, 2017 - Page 1 News List

Shots fired across border as soldier defects to S Korea

Reuters, SEOUL

North Korean soldiers look across the border, where a South Korean soldier stands guard near the spot where a North Korean soldier crossed the border on Nov. 13, near Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on Nov. 27.

Photo: AP

South Korean guards yesterday fired warning shots across the heavily militarized border with North Korea as a soldier from the North defected, officials said, complicating efforts to ease tensions over Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

A South Korean Ministry of National Defense official said that up to 20 warning shots were fired at North Korean troops who approached too close to the “military demarcation line,” apparently in search of the missing soldier.

Yesterday’s defection came about five weeks after another North Korean soldier sustained critical gunshot wounds during a defection dash across the border on Nov. 13.

Two North Korean civilians who were found in a fishing boat on Wednesday have also sought to defect, South Korean officials said.

That brings the total number of North Koreans who have defected by taking dangerous routes either directly across the border or by sea to 15 this year, including two other soldiers.

That is three times last year’s number, South Korean officials said.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula were already high after North Korea accelerated testing of its missile and nuclear programs this year in defiance of international pressure.

The rash of defections also threatens to complicate South Korea’s efforts to ensure the smooth running of the Winter Olympics, which begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday said he had proposed postponing major military drills with the US until after the Games in an attempt to soothe relations, although officials in Seoul later said any proposed delay would depend on the North not engaging in any “provocations.”

Seoul has said more than 880 North Koreans have defected to the South this year, but the vast majority have taken a less dangerous route through China.

Going through China means they avoid the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, which features land mines, barbed wire, surveillance cameras, electric fencing and thousands of armed troops on both sides.

The number of defectors arriving successfully in the South has dropped since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011, a trend defectors and experts have said might be linked to a crackdown by Pyongyang.

In yesterday’s defection, a low-ranking soldier crossed the border near a South Korean guard post at about 8:04am, South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said.

No shots were fired at the soldier, Roh said, adding that surveillance equipment detected him, despite heavy fog that limited visibility to about 100m.

South Korean guards fired about 20 warning shots at North Korean troops near the border who were presumably searching for the defector about half an hour later, a ministry official told reporters.

Gunfire from the North was detected later, but the target could not be determined, the official said.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification also said maritime police had found two North Korean men drifting in a small boat off the coast on Wednesday.

The pair “expressed their willingness to defect,” a ministry official said, and their claim for asylum was being investigated.

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