News / Asia

N. Korean Soldier Shoots Officers Before Defecting

A view of Ki Jong Dong, North Korea, is seen from Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone, the tense military border between the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, March 25, 2012.
A view of Ki Jong Dong, North Korea, is seen from Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone, the tense military border between the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, March 25, 2012.
In what is apparently the first such incident in nearly two-and-half years, a North Korean soldier has defected across the heavily armed land border with the South.

South Korean military officials say a soldier from the North claims he shot and killed his platoon and squad chiefs while on guard duty before defecting across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.

The incident occurred at noon Saturday along the western section of the DMZ.

Officials say South Korean troops at the border heard gunshots, confirmed the North Korean soldier's desire to defect, and escorted him to a guard post. He is now undergoing interrogation.

The senior analyst in Seoul for the International Crisis Group, Daniel Pinkston, says there is no indication the defection denotes any instability in the reclusive and impoverished state.

“We'll see as he's debriefed and it's just a one-off incident, so I don't think there's too much we can read into it besides that at this point,” he said.

Pinkston points out that soldiers in North Korea's army posted to the border area are scrupulously vetted.

“Those who are stationed in the border area, around the DMZ and especially right on the DMZ, are those who are considered to be loyal to the regime. They've been screened and they do not put people there who would be considered disloyal,” he said.

Defections by North Koreans along the DMZ are rare. The last known incident involving a soldier occurred in March, 2010.

Under North Korea's collective punishment system, a disloyal act of this magnitude would mean harsh treatment for the soldier's family, extending for three generations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul says South Korea has increased surveillance along the DMZ following the incident and  the military has activated its crisis management facility. However, there is no sign of any unusual activity on the northern side.

The DMZ is a legacy of the 1953 armistice which brought a three-year civil war to a halt. But the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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