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North Korean defector wandered for hours around border area unnoticed

February 25, 2021 | 09:01

North Korean's military faces heavy critism after failing to notice a man who crossed the strictly guarded border into the South, despite being spotted several times by TY cameras and triggered alarms.

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Only a handful of the 31,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South did so via the heavily guarded DMZ. Photograph: Thomas Maresca/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

The man, wearing a wetsuit and flippers, reportedly swam to South Korea in the early hours of 16 February, but evaded capture for more than six hours, according to the Yonhap news agency.

The latest details have come from a report by South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) into the security lapses on 16 February. The JCS have refused to identify the man and are investigating whether he was trying to defect, according to BBC.

It is not known where his journey started, but he came ashore in a wetsuit and flippers at 01:05, close to a South Korean observatory, north of the eastern border town of Goseong.

He hid the suit and flippers under a rock and then followed barbed wire fences south along the beach.

He then entered the drainage tunnel and crossed into the DMZ.

The man then moved along a road undetected for more than 5km (three miles) until 04:16.

His ninth appearance on a CCTV camera at this point led troops to report his presence.

The military found him at 07:27. The report said he had been looking for civilians to turn himself in to, as he feared soldiers might return him to the North.

Surveillance cameras spotted the man several times between 01:05 and 01:38, with alarms going off twice. No action was taken.

Military CCTVs caught the man another three times at about 04:00.

A JCS official told Yonhap that the soldier in charge of coastal surveillance equipment was making adjustments at the time and thought the alarms were a system error.

Some have queried whether the man, a civilian working in the fishing industry, had swum from North Korea as claimed, given the cold winter conditions. There was speculation that he could have made some of the journey by boat instead.

However, the JCS said it believed the man had swum over, saying his wetsuit was in good condition and the tide would have helped.

This is the second time in four months that questions have been raised about security at the DMZ.

After a former gymnast defected last November by jumping over the border fence, South Korea's military announced it would check every sensor.

The latest event has led to an inquiry into the 22nd Division, which is in charge of that area of the DMZ.

“Service members in charge of the guard duty failed to abide by due procedures and failed to detect the unidentified man,” an official from the joint chiefs of staff [JCS] told Yonhap, The Guardian reported.

An investigation into the incident found that a guard in charge of coastal surveillance equipment was addressing a computer issue and dismissed the alarms as technical errors, while a second guard at the military post had been distracted by a phone call.

The military’s embarrassment was compounded when it emerged that it had not even known about the drainage tunnel the escapee passed through during his flight from North Korea.

Some have queried whether the man, a civilian working in the fishing industry, had swum from North Korea as claimed, given the cold winter conditions. There was speculation that he could have made some of the journey by boat instead.

However, the JCS said it believed the man had swum over, saying his wetsuit was in good condition and the tide would have helped.

This is the second time in four months that questions have been raised about security at the DMZ.

After a former gymnast defected last November by jumping over the border fence, South Korea's military announced it would check every sensor.

The latest event has led to an inquiry into the 22nd Division, which is in charge of that area of the DMZ.

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Getting through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) to defect is rare and dangerous (Photo: Getty Images)

Are defections frequent?

Since taking power in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to have ordered the tightening of border controls between the two sides and with China, including by laying more landmines.

But about 1,000 people defect from North Korea each year, fleeing a repressive state that has faced numerous accusations of human rights abuses.

Most North Koreans escape by crossing over the border to China, where they risk being sent back to the North.

Crossing via the DMZ is dangerous. If spotted and arrested by the North Korean military, those trying to cross would certainly be taken to a detention centre to be interrogated. They could be tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in labour camps.

The border and its fortifications have been in place since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953. North and South Korea remain technically at war as the fighting did not end with a peace treaty.

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