South Korea detains suspected defector who crossed heavily fortified border
South Korea has detained a North Korean man who it believed was trying to defect by crossing the heavily armed land border separating the two countries.
The man was first seen crossing barbed wire fences shortly before 7.30pm on Tuesday, according to South Korean media reports.
He was apprehended at 9.50am on Wednesday after surveillance equipment spotted him at the eastern end of the demilitarised zone [DMZ], a 248km-long (155-mile) strip of land strewn with mines.
It was not clear if the man was a soldier or a civilian, although reports said he was not in uniform.
“An investigation is planned to find out details about the man, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement.
The defence ministry declined to confirm a Yonhap news agency report saying the military had issued a “Jindotgae” anti-infiltration alert for the eastern border area.
The incident comes within weeks of a South Korean fisheries ministry official being killed after crossing into North Korea via the countries’ maritime border, sparking a rise in tensions amid claims that North Korean soldiers had shot him dead, doused his body in fuel and set it alight. The South’s intelligence agency said this week it had “circumstantial evidence” indicating that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, had launched an investigation into the shooting.
Very few of the 31,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South in the past two decades have done so via the DMZ, which is the scene for occasional military skirmishes but also the setting for cross-border talks during times of détente. Most defectors cross into China and arrive in the South via a third country, often Thailand.
In 2018 a North Korean soldier defected to South Korea via the eastern part of the DMZ, while another was shot at by his compatriots when he ran across the border in a dramatic escape to the South in 2017.
South Korea resumed tours to its side of the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday, a year after they were suspended due to an outbreak of African swine fever in the North and, more recently, concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
The South’s unification minister, Lee In-young, did not mention the suspected defection at a ceremony held on Wednesday to mark the tours’ resumption, but called for free travel among all Koreans within the DMZ and for recently severed inter-Korean hotlines to be reinstated.
“Re-establishing round-the-clock communication channels would be a basis for restoring inter-Korean relations,” Lee said.
North Korean state media has not commented on Wednesday’s incident at the border, which has separated the countries since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. South Korea said it had not observed any unusual activity by the North’s military.