A North Korean soldier at the border village of Panmunjom defected to the South on Monday, and was shot and wounded by the North Korean military while crossing the border. While many details remain unclear, the defection has been described as highly unusual as it happened at the heavily guarded border and serves as a major embarrassment to the totalitarian Kim Jung-un regime.
According to a South Korean defense ministry official, the North Korean soldier defected from a North Korean guard post nearby and was found on the south side of the border village of Panmunjom, about 50 meters south of the Military Demarcation Line, wounded in his shoulder and elbow. He is being treated in a South Korean hospital.
Reuters noted that while on average more than 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea every year, most travel via China, and it is unusual for a North Korean to cross the land border dividing the two Koreas, an area known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.
What is even more unusual is that this North Korean soldier defected through Panmunjom, the most high profile village on the DMZ line that separates the two Koreas. The symbolic importance of Panmunjom can be observed from the fact that top officials from South Korea and the United States often visit the village to demonstrate commitment and resolve.
Just last week, President Donald Trump planned to visit Panmunjom when he came to South Korea last week as part of his Asian tour, but the visit was canceled due to heavy fog that prevented his helicopter from landing at the border area.
“North Korean border guards at Panmunjom are vetted extensively for their loyalty to the regime in an attempt to thwart precisely this kind of embarrassment.” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean Studies professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Lee also said that North Korean soldiers selected to guard Panmunjom have to be tall, so as to match the South Korean and U.S. soldiers on the other side.
The fact that a carefully selected and vetted elite North Korean soldier guarding the prestigious border post defected to the south has attracted international attention. There was no immediate comment on the incident from North Korea.
It is not known to what extent such a defection means for the level of morale inside the North Korean military. While experts say there is discontent brewing within the military, as there certainly is among the general population, there has not yet been a major wave of defections suggesting a regime collapse might be possible.
“Is the North Korean state still capable of controlling the military through fear and indoctrination?” asked Sung-Yoon Lee. “Based on the small numbers of defections and no reported incident of a major coup, I must assume it is.”
The defected North Korean soldier’s condition and military rank remain to be verified. The soldier’s successful escape is only the fourth defection by a North Korean soldier through the DMZ in the last three years, the BBC reported.
The defection comes amid tension between the two Koreas, and between the United States and the North.