South Korea Is Rattled by Border Guards' Failure to Spot Defector

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SEOUL, South Korea -- A North Korean soldier who defected to South Korea this month not only scaled three barbed-wire fences along one of the world's most heavily patrolled borders without being detected, he also had to knock on barracks doors -- twice -- when he reached the South to get any attention.

News of the defection has trickled out this week as opposition lawmakers here, who apparently learned of it through a leak, have pressed the government to explain how such a security breach could have happened, and on Thursday President Lee Myung-bak ordered that border guards in the area be disciplined.

The startling details of the border guards' failure to spot the defector are no doubt an embarrassment for the government; the news media and politicians are asking what might have happened if the man had come armed for an attack. But the news has been greeted with something of a shrug by many South Koreans, who over the decades have learned to live next to a country with which they remain technically at war.

It is also not the first time the border has been breached in recent years; in 2009, a South Korean civilian sneaked past border guards to defect to the North. And last month, a North Korean civilian defected by swimming across a river and crawling through a military fence on the border west of Seoul. He lived in hiding for five days on a South Korean border island, but was not spotted until a villager found him in his warehouse, drunk and repeating, "I am from the North."

Those incidents contributed to the widespread belief -- fostered during years when spies infiltrated both sides of the border -- that individuals intent on crossing stand a chance, despite the area's being mined and guarded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers on each side.

The North Korean soldier, whose name, rank and motive for defection were not disclosed, crossed the eastern border on the night of Oct. 2.

The military did not disclose his defection until lawmakers began asking questions about it during a parliamentary session this week. In contrast, the military immediately made public the defection of another North Korean soldier who ran across the border on Saturday after killing two of his officers. South Korean guards spotted him and, using a loudspeaker, guided him into their side.

After the security breach made news, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin spoke by teleconference with military commanders, according to his ministry, and said, "We are sorry that we caused concern to the people."

President Lee on Thursday ordered "a thorough investigation and stern reprimand against those responsible" for the lax vigilance, his office said.

The North Korean soldier, attached to a military unit 31 miles behind the front line, reached the northern edge of the two-and-a-half-mile-wide demilitarized zone separating the two countries around 8 p.m. The zone is guarded by sentries on both sides at night. Although the North Korean side is shrouded in darkness, the southern sector is lit with floodlights to help soldiers in the South's guard posts spot intruders.

Despite those protections, the North Korean defector was not spotted scrambling over the tall fences topped with concertina wire. Around 11 p.m., he knocked on the door of a South Korean guard unit. When there was no response, he walked to another nearby barracks and knocked again. When South Korean soldiers answered, he turned himself in, military officials said.

Although thousands of North Koreans defect to the South though China, it is rare for a North Korean -- soldier or civilian -- to defect through the inter-Korean land border, which stretches about 160 miles from west to east.

The demilitarized zone was created at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, when the conflict was suspended in a truce.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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