North Korean border guards were only steps behind a North Korean soldier when they opened fire and one briefly crossed the border pursuing the wounded defector as he dashed to the South Korean side, a video released on Wednesday by the U.N. Command (UNC) in Seoul showed.
The defecting soldier, whose rank and identity have not been disclosed, was critically wounded, having been hit five or six times in the hail of bullets as he made his desperate escape on Nov.13. He was flown by a U.S. military helicopter to a hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul.
Doctors announced on Wednesday that he had regained consciousness, having had two operations to extract the bullets, and his breathing was stable and unassisted.
“He is fine,” lead surgeon Lee Cook-Jong said at a press conference in Suwon. “He is not going to die.”
An official from U.N. Command (UNC) said North Korea had been informed on Wednesday that it had violated the 1953 armistice agreement, which marked the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War.
The UNC official told a news conference that a soldier from the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) had crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the border between the two Koreas, for a few seconds as others fired shots at the defecting soldier.
“The key findings of the special investigation team are that the KPA violated the armistice agreement by one, firing weapons across the MDL, and two, by actually crossing the MDL temporarily,” Chad Carroll, Director of Public Affairs for the UNC, told reporters.
The incident comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the international community over its nuclear weapons program, but Pyongyang has not publicly responded to the high-profile defection at the sensitive border.
The dramatic video begins with a lone four-wheel army jeep military vehicle speeding along empty, tree-lined roads toward the border, passing checkpoints manned by North Korean guards who can be seen leaving their posts and running in pursuit as the vehicle races by.
After passing a memorial to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, where tourists often gather for tours of the Joint Security Area (JSA) inside the demilitarized zone, the vehicle runs into a ditch.
For several minutes the driver appears to try to free the vehicle, but the wheels spin uselessly in fallen leaves.
He finally sprinted for his life, scrambling up slightly rising ground to cross the border just seconds before at least four of his army comrades appear, firing in the direction that he has run.
One of the pursuing guards appears to briefly cross the dividing line between the two countries before turning around.
The video does not show the moment when the defector was hit, but he is seen lying motionless in a pile of dead leaves next to a concrete wall in one of the later edited clips in the video.
Carroll said the position was still exposed to North Korean checkpoints across the border.
The allied troops operating the CCTV cameras that captured the incident had by then notified their commanders and a quick reaction force had assembled on the South Korean side of the border, according to Carroll, though the video did not show this force.
Infrared imagery shows two South Korean troops crawling through undergrowth to drag the wounded North Korean to safety, while the deputy commander of the border security unit oversees the rescue from a few meters away.
Doctors conducted a series of surgeries on the critically wounded soldier, and now say they believe he will recover, despite continued risks of infection.
“Patient requires intensive care, detailed tests and observation as there is a chance his condition may worsen due to infections of his bullet wounds,” the hospital said in a statement.
The soldier show signs of depression and possible trauma, in addition to a serious case of parasites that has complicated his treatment, the hospital said.
Continuing stress made the soldier hesitant to talk, but he had been cooperative, doctors said.
The surgeon said he believed the soldier left North Korea of his own volition, but did not offer any more insight into the man’s motivation for making the dangerous escape.
The defector is believed to be an army staff sergeant in his mid-20s who was stationed in the Joint Security Area in the United Nations truce village of Panmunjom, according to Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of South Korea’s ruling party, briefed by the National Intelligence Service last week.
While on average more than 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year, most travel via China and it is unusual for a North Korean to cross the land border dividing the two Koreas, which have been in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
This incident marked the first time since 2007 that a North Korean soldier had defected across the JSA.
Banner/Thumbnail credit: Park Se-yeon/News1 via REUTERS