SEOUL (Reuters) – Haejin Choi and Josh Smith report: South Korean guards fired warning shots across the heavily militarized border with North Korea on Thursday as a soldier from the North defected in thick fog, complicating efforts to ease tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
A South Korean defense ministry official said up to 20 warning shots were fired as North Korean troops approached too near the “military demarcation line” at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), apparently in search of the missing soldier.
Thursday’s defection came about five weeks after a North Korean soldier suffered critical gunshot wounds during a defection dash across the border.
Two North Korean civilians were also found in a fishing boat on Wednesday and had sought to defect, officials in the South said.
That brings the total number of North Koreans who have defected by taking dangerous routes either directly across the border or by sea to 15 so far this year, including two other soldiers. That is three times the number last year, according to South Korean officials.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula were already high after reclusive, impoverished North Korea accelerated testing of its missile and nuclear programs this year in defiance of international pressure and UN 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.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday he had proposed postponing major military drills with the United States until after the games in an attempt to soothe relations, although officials in Seoul later said any proposed delay would depend on the North not engaging in any “provocations”.
In a notice published online, the U.S. military’s 8th Army said a “significant number of North Korean propaganda leaflets and CDs” had been distributed at “strategic locations” on multiple U.S. military bases in South Korea.
The notice called on troops to report any suspicious individuals to help combat potential “insider threats” that could disrupt military operations.
The United States stations 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, and North Korea says regular U.S.-South Korean military drills are a prelude to invasion. It regularly threatens to destroy the United States and its two key Asian allies, South Korea and Japan.
LANDMINES, BARBED WIRE
Seoul says more than 880 North Koreans have defected to the rich, democratic South so far this year, but the vast majority have taken a less dangerous route through China.
Going through China, North Korea’s neighbor and sole major ally, means they avoid the DMZ, which features landmines, barbed wire, surveillance cameras, electric fencing and thousands of armed troops on both sides … (read more)