SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean soldier defected to the South by driving a vehicle to the line that divides the peninsula, then sprinting across it as his former comrades opened fire, the United Nations Command said Tuesday.
The stunning escape occurred Monday at a jointly controlled area that is the only point where soldiers from the two sides face each other in the Demilitarized Zone.
The soldier was injured by gunfire from the North Korean side and has been hospitalized, according to South Korea’s military.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 war, but it’s very rare for soldiers to flee across the DMZ, much less the Joint Security Area.
The U.S.-led UNC, which oversees the South Korean side of the JSA, said the defector drove a vehicle near the de facto border line.
“He then exited the vehicle and continued fleeing south across the line as he was fired upon by other soldiers from North Korea,” it said in a statement. “The individual initially took cover near a building on the southern side of the JSA.”
U.S. and South Korean forces recovered him at about 4 p.m., then transported him to the Ajou University Medical Center south of Seoul, along with a UNC security escort and translator, it said.
South Korean officials have said the North Korean soldier was shot in the shoulder and elbow, and was airlifted to the hospital by a UNC helicopter.
The soldier was unarmed and wearing a combat uniform indicating a low rank. U.S. and South Korean forces didn’t return fire, they said.
The defection came less than a week after President Donald Trump made his first official visit to South Korea amid soaring tensions over the growing nuclear and missile threat from the North.
South Korea’s military said it has strengthened its vigilance and readiness posture in case of a possible military provocation by the North.
The DMZ is a 2.5-mile wide, 150-mile long buffer zone lined with barbed wire and dotted with landmines. The JSA provides the adversaries with a neutral zone and has been the site of past dialogue.
The 1953 armistice that ended the fighting but left the countries technically at war was signed in one of the blue buildings that straddle the Military Demarcation Line.
It’s also a popular stop for tourists and dignitaries, including several U.S. presidents.
Trump tried to make a surprise visit to the DMZ last week, but his helicopter was forced to turn back to Seoul after heavy fog prevented it from landing at the frontier.
Violence has broken out in the area in the past. In 1984, a Soviet tourist sprinted across the demarcation line from North Korea in a bid to defect, prompting a gun battle that killed and wounded several soldiers from both sides.
Two American soldiers also were killed in the DMZ by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers in a 1976 brawl over an attempt to trim a poplar tree. That prompted Washington to send nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to intimidate the North before the adversaries pulled back from the brink of conflict.
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