Teenage North Korean Soldier Breaches Border to Escape to South Korea

Vincent Yu/AP
Vincent Yu/AP

A teenage North Korean soldier defected to South Korea Sunday through the fortified border separating the two countries, according a statement Monday from the Ministry of Defense in Seoul. The escape is the first of its kind in nearly three years.

“This morning a citizen of North Korea who is apparently an Army soldier crossed into the South in the east-central military demarcation in Hwacheon in the Gangwon Province area,” reported a spokesman for the Ministry.

No exchange of gunfire occurred between the troops of North and South Korea, who defend the land strip known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The soldier, who made the border crossing on foot, “expressed his willingness to defect, and is now in custody,” said the spokesman.

Authorities have opened an investigation into the case, looking for more details, as well as the motives behind the young man’s action. At the moment, details of the case are few, with only the approximate age of the soldier known, reportedly in his late teens.

It is highly unusual for defecting North Korean soldiers to make the dangerous crossing through the heavily guarded DMZ, and the last such case occurred in October 2012.

Various sources told South Korean media in recent days that the regime of Kim Jong-un had strengthened control measures to prevent troops deployed near the border from defecting to the neighboring country. According to military sources, the communist North has increased supervision to prevent escapes, with 1,292 wooden or concrete watchtowers every 200 or 300 meters along the border.

Recent years have averaged between 1,000 and 3,000 yearly cases of defections of North Koreans to the South, some of them soldiers, but the vast majority have taken place across the northern North Korean border with China.

In 2014, there were 1,396 desertions to the South, according to statistics of the Seoul government.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.