November 13th had been a quiet day at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.
Cold weather had dissuaded tourists from venturing out. However, the afternoon quickly bore witness to the unfolding of a life-or-death event.
On the north side, a Jeep driven by a North Korean soldier suddenly raced past startled North Korean guards, causing them immediately to give chase on foot. The Jeep became stuck in a ditch, causing the driver to abandon it and to take off running towards South Korean (ROK) guards standing nearby. The ROK guards took cover as the North Koreans shot at the defector. Despite the North Koreans firing at least 40 rounds with handguns and automatic weapons, striking the defector five times, the ROK guards failed to return fire. Taking cover behind a small wall on the South Korean side, the wounded defector waited for help. Of the several North Korean soldiers initially giving chase, one briefly continued into South Korea before returning north.
The whole incident lasted four minutes. Knowing the defector was in need of medical assistance, two ROK soldiers crawled to him, pulling him out of harm’s way. He was then transferred to a hospital where doctors were able to save his life.
The defector’s escape was most telling for three reasons.
First, while there have been numerous defections from North to South Korea, Pyongyang has always sung the tune that these were never defections but kidnappings by the South. A video capturing this particular defection at the DMZ clearly puts an end to that party line excuse. The defector was neither the victim of a kidnapping nor of making a wrong turn. He clearly was committed, at the cost of his life, to gaining his freedom.
Interestingly, while defections from North to South Korea before 2000 numbered about a hundred total, there have been more than 30,000 since 2000. Evidence that living life in the North is brutal, enough people have escaped there in numbers sufficient to populate a smaller nation in the world. Despite the regime’s promotion of the fantasy that life in the North is utopia, those living in that utopia know differently.
A second telling factor about the North revealed by the defection is Pyongyang’s violation of the Armistice Agreement. It was signed by the warring parties in 1953 and sets forth the terms under which the DMZ is to operate. The agreement bans guards from arming themselves with automatic weapons — limiting them strictly to handguns. The crack of automatic weapons fire during the escape made clear Pyongyang was in violation of the agreement. Additionally, weapons were not to be discharged at the DMZ.
This violation is noteworthy for the reason that, if the North is willing to cheat on small arms weaponry, it most assuredly will cheat on any agreement limiting larger weapons, such as nukes. Of course, such would not set a new precedent as Pyongyang has proven willing to violate any agreement it makes.
In a typical slap-of-the-hand response by Seoul, it said a “serious protest” will be filed at the UN raising this violation as an issue. Undoubtedly, this announcement by Seoul leaves Kim Jong-un shaking in his boots. Such protest will in no way curtail Pyongyang’s continuing tally to date of 221 provocations launched by the trio of Kim family leaders since 1953.
A third telling factor was discovered by doctors operating on the defector.
Multiple surgeries had to be conducted to remove all bullets, address infection, and treat blood poisoning and Hepatitis B. But contributing to the complexities of doing so was finding “an incredible amount of parasites” in his intestines — one of which was almost a foot long. These parasites were of a kind not found in the South because of more advanced agricultural processes. They are a type of roundworm often found in developing countries, attributable to consuming crops fertilized by human feces. In South Korea, not even the poorest of the poor suffer from such parasites.
If such parasitical infestation is common among North Korean troops, it obviously is telling of that army’s ability to “march on its stomach.”
After regaining consciousness, the defector immediately queried whether he was in South Korea and was relieved when reassured he was by the medical staff treating him.
Undoubtedly, there will be consequences in the North for the escape. If the defector left a family behind, they will be sent to a prison camp. In all likelihood, the North Korean soldiers who failed to stop the defection will either be executed or imprisoned as well. Some reports claim Kim feels so humiliated by the escape he has already replaced all his border guards; however, the fate of those relieved remains unknown.
And, the defector himself, while enjoying his newfound freedom, will also suffer consequences for his daring escape. He will constantly bear the burden of worrying whether a North Korean assassin is stalking him. If so, he will not be the first to be so targeted, either in South Korea or elsewhere.
In addition to having a gluttonous food appetite, Kim has an appetite for creatively bizarre ways to violently eliminate perceived threats. Fearing mutiny, it caused him to eliminate his uncle as well as his uncle’s entire family, including grandchildren, eradicating all traces of that familial line. It resulted in the execution of his senior military officer for disagreeing with him. It caused him to order the assassination of his half-brother as a potential competitor to Pyongyang’s throne. And, more recently, it has caused him to threaten America with a nuclear (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack.
The defector may well prove to be a marked man—but so too is America as long as “Incredible Bulk” Kim sits upon the throne. The Kim dynasty has enjoyed a long history of initiating aggressive acts against the U.S. and ROK, without fear of an in-kind retaliatory military strike. Nothing short of military action seeking to eliminate Kim or threaten his personal safety will curtail future aggression.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.