North Korean ‘pole vaults to freedom’ across border

Donald Kirk and Shweta Sharma
·3-min read
South Korean army soldiers patrol in the demilitarized zone. (AFP via Getty Images)
South Korean army soldiers patrol in the demilitarized zone. (AFP via Getty Images)

A North Korean defector has left authorities in the South baffled after claiming to have vaulted over an almost 10ft high fence during his audacious escape.

The man, in his late twenties, was interrogated upon his capture in South Korea and claimed he was a former gymnast who “jumped over the 3-metre fence” between the two countries in the demilitarised zone, a Seoul official told The Korea Herald.

The news has sparked urgent questions in South Korea over how the man was able to cross the heavily guarded border without triggering any alarms.

The defector, said to be a civilian, was described as having a slight, athletic build, and the Herald said the authorities made him display his jumping abilities to prove he had vaulted the fence and not simply climbed over.

The military’s working theory is that he more likely was able to shimmy up an iron pole and then jumped over the barbed wire at the top, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a leading South Korean daily newspaper.

Regardless, officials have called for an urgent probe. “An investigation is planned to find out details about the man, including how he had [crossed] and whether he wishes to defect,” the joint chiefs of staff of the South Korea military said in a statement.

He was seized by South Korean soldiers on November 4, but the military waited until this week to reveal the claim that he had been able to leap over what is supposed to be an impenetrable barrier,

The defector first had to get around or over a barbed-wire fence on the North Korean side of the four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone that has separated North from South Korea since the armistice ending the Korean war was signed in July 1953. Then he had to get to the 12-foot-high barbed-wire barricade on the South Korean side, evading detection by guard posts on both sides of the line and also evading electronic sensors.

Security appears particularly porous on the eastern end of the DMZ where the latest defection appeared to take place. South Korean troops find the duty along the line extremely boring, and military discipline has grown increasingly less stern as the South drafts young men into service for only 18 to 20 months, down from two years several years ago.

“We are investigating fully to see what happened and taking steps to make sure such a defection never happens again,” said a South Korean military source, not revealing further details, including possible disciplinary action against the army officers responsible for making certain of security in the area.

Although more than 32,000 North Koreans are said to have defected to the South over the years, almost all of them do so by crossing the Tumen or Yalu rivers between North Korea and China, then escaping the Chinese police and making their way to the South often with the help of highly paid “brokers” who bribe North Korean border guards.

Defections into South Korea are extremely difficult considering all the high coiled barbed wire on both the North and South Korean sides not to mention thousands of mines on both sides in addition to electronic sensors. The latest defector was picked up by South Korean soldiers about a mile south of the demilitarized zone.

He was a lot more fortunate than the North Korean soldier who ran across the demilitarized zone at the truce village of Panmunjom 40 miles north of Seoul three years ago. North Koreans in hot pursuit wounded him a number of times, but he was finally rescued by South Korean soldiers and medevacked to a hospital where expert surgery saved him.

The latest defection across the DMZ came eight years after a North Korean soldier got across the line in the same general area. He was not discovered until knocking on the door of a South Korean guard post.

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