SEOUL • A North Korean soldier escaped to the South yesterday across the heavily guarded Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula, triggering gunfire on both sides of the tense border, in the second defection in successive months.
The "low-ranking" soldier was spotted by South Korean soldiers using surveillance equipment as he crossed the mid-western part of the land border in thick fog and made his way to a guard post, a spokesman for Seoul's Defence Ministry said.
There were no shots at the time, he said, but about 90 minutes later South Korean troops fired around 20 rounds from a K-3 machine gun to warn off Northern guards who had approached the border apparently looking for their comrade.
Two bursts of gunfire were later heard in the North, the spokesman said, but there were no indications of any bullets crossing the border.
The incident came a month after a rare and dramatic defection by a North Korean soldier under a hail of bullets from his own side at Panmunjom, the truce village where opposing forces confront each other across a concrete dividing line.
On that occasion, the defector drove to the heavily guarded border at speed and ran across the border as North Korean troops fired at him. He was hit at least four times.
Security camera footage showed the badly injured man being pulled to safety by two South Korean soldiers who crawled to reach him just south of the demarcation line.
The soldier, later identified as 24-year-old Oh Chong Song, underwent multiple operations for his gunshot wounds at Ajou University Hospital in Seoul and was transferred to a military hospital last week, Yonhap news agency said.
Away from the Panmunjom, the rest of the 4km-wide DMZ bristles with barbed wire and is littered with minefields, making any crossing extremely hazardous.
Yesterday's defection was the fourth by a soldier across the DMZ this year.
Two North Korean civilians also defected this week after being found drifting in a rickety engine-less boat off the South's eastern coast, Yonhap reported, citing the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North. They were spotted by a South Korean surveillance aircraft and picked up by a nearby navy vessel, it said.
The developments bring this year's total for the number of people defecting directly to the South to 15, a Joint Chiefs of Staff tally showed - three times as many as last year.
Around 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty in their homeland to reach the South over the decades since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, with 1,418 doing so last year, according to Unification Ministry data.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula were already high after reclusive, impoverished North Korea accelerated testing of its missile and nuclear programmes this year in defiance of international pressure and United Nations sanctions.
The defections also threaten to complicate South Korea's efforts to ensure the smooth running of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin in Pyeongchang in February next year.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS