A North Korean defector wore a diving suit and fins during a daring six-hour swim around one of the world’s most fortified borders and was only caught after apparently falling asleep, a Seoul official said.
South Korean forces did not spot the man’s audacious exploit, despite his appearance several times on surveillance cameras after he landed and triggered alarms, drawing heavy criticism from media and opposition lawmakers.
Even after his presence was noticed, the man — who used diving gear to make his way by sea around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula — was not caught for another three hours.
The man, reportedly in his 20s, landed north of Goseong, South Korea.
“He presumably had swum for about six hours, wearing a padded jacket inside a diving suit and fins. His clothing appeared to have kept him warm and allowed him to stay afloat,” an unnamed South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency on Tuesday.
Tidal currents worked in his favor and he abandoned most of his equipment before making his way through a drainage channel under the barbed-wire fences that run along the coast, the official said.
Over more than three hours, surveillance cameras caught him eight times and audible alarms sounded twice, but border guards did not notice.
Eventually a search was launched and troops found him three hours later, apparently asleep, his mask hanging in a tree.
Officials said that the defector, presumed to have been a civilian in the North, has expressed a desire to defect.
The military acknowledged troops had “failed to abide by due procedures” and vowed to strengthen border security.
In a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, South Korean Minister of National Defense Suh Wook said that surveillance systems in the area were “malfunctioning and outdated.”
Only a handful of North Korean defectors ever directly cross the DMZ or swim past the maritime border — although the last such publicly known incident was in November last year, when questions about security were also raised.
Most defectors first travel to China, sometimes staying there for years before making their way to South Korea via other countries.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea over the decades, but numbers plummeted to just 229 last year, after Pyongyang imposed a strict border closure to protect itself from COVID-19.
The incident was evidence the South Korean military was “close to a near collapse,” the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said yesterday.
“Is this unit the only unit not doing its job properly? We think not,” it added in an editorial.
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