A North Korean soldier races for the border in a jeep and then on foot before his former comrades shoot him at least five times as he limps into South Korea, where he collapses and is dragged to safety by southern soldiers in a dramatic video released by the U.S.-led U.N. command Wednesday.
The defection, subsequent surgeries and slow recovery of the soldier have riveted South Korea, but it will be a huge embarrassment for the North, which claims all defections are the result of rival Seoul kidnapping or enticing North Koreans to defect. Pyongyang has said nothing about the defection so far.
North Korea’s actions during the defector’s Nov. 13 escape at Panmunjom violated the armistice agreement ending the 1950-53 Korean War because North Korean soldiers fired across and physically crossed the border in pursuit of the soldier, U.S. Col. Chad G. Carroll, a spokesman for the U.N. command, told reporters in a live TV briefing.
The video shows the soldier speeding down a tree-lined road, headlights on, past dun-colored fields and shocked North Korean soldiers who begin to run after him. He crashes the jeep into a ditch near the line that divides North and South and the blue huts familiar to anyone who’s toured the area. It is the part of the border where North and South Korean soldiers face each other at their closest distance, just feet apart. There were no tour groups at the time of the defection, Carroll said.
Soldiers from the North sprint to the area, firing handguns and AK rifles — about 40 rounds, the South says — at the defector; one hurries across the dividing line before running back to the northern side. South Korean soldiers then crawl up to the defector, who has fallen injured in a mass of leaves against a small wall. They drag him to safety as North Korean troops begin to gather on their side of the line.
A U.N. Command helicopter later transported him to the Ajou University Medical Center near Seoul.
Surprisingly, North and South Korean soldiers didn’t exchange fire in the first shooting in the area in more than three decades. In 1984, North Korean and U.N. Command soldiers traded shots when a Soviet citizen defected by sprinting to the South Korean sector of Panmunjom. Three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier were killed.
About 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea, mostly via China, since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. A North Korean soldier defected via Panmunjom in 1998 and another in 2007 but neither of those events involved gunfire between the rivals.
Carroll said the North violated the armistice by “one, firing weapons across the MDL, and two, by actually crossing the MDL temporarily,” referring to the military demarcation line that bisects the Koreas.
A U.N. Command statement said officials notified the North’s military of these violations and requested a meeting to discuss the investigation results and measures to prevent future such violations.
Panmunjom is inside the 2 1/2-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that is jointly overseen by the American-led U.N. Command and by North Korea. Guarded by mines, barbed wire fences, tank traps and combat troops on both sides, the DMZ is the world’s most heavily fortified border.
Panmunjom was the site of some bloodshed during the Cold War, but there hasn’t been major violence there in recent years. In 1976, North Korean soldiers axed two American army officers to death and the United States responded by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers toward the DMZ in an attempt to intimidate the North.
After undergoing two surgeries last week to repair internal organ damage and other injuries, the soldier is now conscious and no longer relies on a breathing machine, according to hospital official Shin Mi-jeong. While his condition is improving, doctors plan to keep him at the intensive care unit for at least several more days to guard against possible infections.
While treating the wounds, surgeons removed dozens of parasites from the soldier’s ruptured small intestine, including presumed roundworms that were as long as 10.6 inches, which may reflect poor nutrition and health in North Korea’s military. The soldier is 5 feet, 7 inches tall but weighs just 132 pounds.