Massive manhunt for South Korean soldier who killed five comrades

South Korean soldiers stand guard at a temporary checkpoint during a search for the South Korean conscript soldier who is on the run after a shooting incident, in Goseong on June 22, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS
South Korean soldiers stand guard at a temporary checkpoint during a search for the South Korean conscript soldier who is on the run after a shooting incident, in Goseong on June 22, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's military on Sunday pursued a massive manhunt near the tense border with North Korea for a soldier who shot dead five comrades in a rare shooting incident.

The army sergeant, surnamed Lim, opened fire on other soldiers at a guard post on the eastern section of the heavily guarded inter-Korea border Saturday night.

The shooting spree left five dead and seven injured - all members of Lim's own unit at the 22nd infantry division in the western province of Gangwon.

He ran off with a K2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition, a military spokesman said. Another official told AFP that Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.

The army issued its highest state of alert in nearby areas and launched a huge search involving thousands of soldiers and police, who set up roadblocks and inspected vehicles.

"A manhunt is underway to find him as early as possible and to prevent another incident from taking place," defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters.

The army has formed a special team to investigate the incident, he said, adding that the wounded soldiers are in a stable condition.

"We have deployed as many troops as possible to the search operations and to block possible escape routes," Colonel Roh Jae Chun, a spokesman for the operation, told reporters.

The military is also closely monitoring the border with the North to prevent Lim from fleeing to the North, Yonhap news agency said, quoting an army official.

The 22nd infantry division was the scene of a bloody shooting in 1984, when a private opened fire and threw a grenade at barrack mates, killing 15.

Cho Jun Hee then crossed the border to defect to the North, a move which Pyongyang's state media later confirmed.

The site of Saturday's shooting is located just south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) - a buffer strip that runs the full length of the 250-kilometre frontier.

The four-kilometre-wide DMZ - known as the world's last Cold War frontier - features guard posts manned by the rival armies, barbed wire and roads bisecting minefields.

Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.

Many of the South Korean soldiers on border duty are young male recruits doing their mandatory, two-year military service.

These young men make up a large part of the South's 691,000-strong troop presence, compared to 1.17 million in the North.

But bullying and cruelty in the barracks have long overshadowed the armed forces, and have been blamed for many fatal incidents in the military.

In July 2011, a 19-year-old Marine doing his military service killed four colleagues in a shooting spree on Gangwha island near the border.

He tried to kill himself with a grenade but survived. He later said he acted after being bullied.

In June 2005, eight soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded when a 22-year-old conscript threw a grenade and sprayed bullets over sleeping colleagues at a frontline guard post north of Seoul.

In both those cases the men were court martialed and sentenced to death, although the penalty was not carried out.

The military has in recent years taken steps including a ban on beating to tackle what it called a "distorted military culture."