South Korean guards fired 20 warning shots across the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas on Thursday as a young North Korean soldier escaped to the South in heavy fog, the fourth defection by a soldier across the heavily militarized border this year, Seoul officials said.
Thursday's defection, which was accompanied by shooting on the North side, came just over a month after a North Korean soldier suffered gunshot wounds as he fled comrades in a dash across the border.
“This morning, a North Korean soldier defected through our front line guard post in the center-western region. We followed normal strategy with our military guards and surveillance equipment,” said Roh Jae-cheon, head of public affairs at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Around 9:24 am, we broadcasted a warning and fired 20 warning shots using K-3 machine guns. The North Korean search team stopped approaching after we fired warning shots,” he added.
“We heard multiple rounds of gun shots at around 10:13 and 10:16. So far there have no harmful damage to the South Korean military,” said Roh.
According to South Korea’s tally, 15 North Koreans have defected directly to the South across the border or by sea, three times the figure last year. Most of the nearly 900 North Koreans who’ve fled to the South this year travel through China or Mongolia to Southeast Asian countries before being taken to South Korea.
“Compared to last year, there have been an increased number of defections this year and we are looking into closely to see if there is any particular background for it,” said a South Korean official, who declined to be identified.
On Nov. 13, a North Korean soldier was shot several times by his comrades as he sprinted across the border. The soldier, 24-year-old Oh Chong Song, underwent major surgery and is reported to be recovering in a military hospital outside Seoul.
Thursday's defector was described as "low-ranking" and did not appear to have been hit by any gunfire. The South's warning shots were not aimed at him, media reports said.
The defections come amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, as North Korea has stepped up testing of its missile and nuclear programs this year, drawing growing international pressure, including new UN sanctions and threats of military retaliation by the Donald Trump administration in Washington.
Around 30,000 North Koreans have fled to the far wealthier South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry data, 1,418 reached the South in 2016, while arrivals fell 16.8 percent from January to October of this year.
Reported by RFA's Korean service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.