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Dramatic video shows North Korean soldier’s dash to freedom

By KIM GAMEL AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 21, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — A military jeep races along a tree-lined road past a guard post and a monument to North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

It gets stuck in a ditch near a row of conference buildings that straddle the border in the heart of the Demilitarized Zone.

A North Korean soldier jumps from the driver’s seat and runs south under a barrage of gunfire from his shocked former comrades, who sprint to the site with rifles and handguns. One briefly crosses the border himself before running back in the confusion.

The fleeing soldier is later shown lying prone against a wall while two South Korean soldiers crawl on their stomachs to pull him to safety in the Joint Security Area, the only point in the buffer zone where the two sides come face to face.

The drama surrounding the Nov. 13 defection and shooting of a North Korean soldier unfolded on TV and computer screens around the country Wednesday as the United Nations Command released surveillance footage during a live broadcast press conference.

The UNC said its investigation found that the North Koreans violated the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War as they tried to stop the soldier, who was severely wounded by the gunfire.

Doctors said Wednesday he has regained consciousness and is enjoying watching television, including movie and music channels.

The soldier’s daring escape in the truce village of Panmunjom was a major embarrassment for North Korea, which is locked in a tense standoff with the United States over its development of banned nuclear weapons.

"The key findings of the special investigation team are that the [North Korean army] violated the armistice agreement by one, firing weapons across the [Military Demarcation Line], and two, by actually crossing the MDL temporarily," Army Col. Chad Carroll, a UNC spokesman, said at a press conference.

UNC officials said they notified the North Korean army of the violations on Wednesday and requested a meeting to discuss the findings and measures to prevent a recurrence.

North Korea has cut off its communications via hot lines set up between the two sides, but officials said they relayed the message verbally in English and Korean to guards who recorded it at the border in Panmunjom.

Gen. Vincent Brooks, who commands the UNC and U.S. Forces Korea, praised the security battalion on the southern side, saying it took appropriate actions to de-escalate the chaotic situation and prevent a resumption of hostilities.

“The armistice agreement was challenged, but it remains in place,” he said.

STILL HOSPITALIZED

The North Korean soldier, who was shot at least five times, had to be evacuated in a U.S. helicopter to Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul.

He regained consciousness this week after undergoing two major surgeries and blood transfusions, doctors said Wednesday, identifying him only as a 25-year-old with the last name of Oh.

“Because of psychological stress, he’s very passive … and he shows signs of depression,” his doctor, Lee Cook-jong, told reporters at the hospital.

Lee said the soldier had been shot in the legs, chest and abdomen but has recovered enough that he may be able to be transferred from the intensive care unit to a general ward as early as this weekend.

Surgeons found dozens of parasites in the soldier’s intestines, including one that was nearly a foot long. Lee said his patient also had latent tuberculosis and hepatitis B, giving a glimpse into the incredibly poor health conditions facing even elite members of the North Korean army.

Oh has a TV in his room and enjoys watching American shows like “CSI” as well as listening to Korean pop music, the doctor said.

The UNC had planned to release the video last week to quell speculation over the U.S. and South Korean response to the shooting. But it announced Friday it would wait until the investigation was complete.

The footage shows about 45 minutes lapsed from the time the jeep is first spotted to when the soldier is dragged to safety. Military officials have said the North Koreans fired 40 rounds during the chase.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the war ended, but it’s extremely rare for soldiers to try to cross through the JSA.

The Unification Ministry said it happened two other times – in 2007 and 1998. But it was the first shooting in the JSA since 1984, when a deadly gunbattle broke out after a Soviet tourist used his visit to flee across the border.

Pyongyang hasn’t commented on the latest defection. It usually denies people want to flee and accuses the South of kidnapping them, although it called a high-level diplomat who defected last year “human scum.”

The truce was signed in 1953 to end three years of fighting, but the sides failed to sign a peace treaty and remain technically at war. Some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in South Korea.

Tensions have reached a peak in recent months after the North test-fired dozens of missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has threatened to “totally destroy” the North if forced to defend the U.S. and its allies.

The DMZ is a 2.5-mile wide, 150-mile-long strip of land that’s lined with barbed wire and dotted with landmines. The JSA provides the adversaries with a neutral zone and has been the site of past dialogue.

It’s also a popular stop for tourists and dignitaries, including several U.S. presidents and other senior officials who like to use it as a backdrop to make pronouncements against the North.

Trump tried to make a surprise visit to the DMZ during his first official trip to South Korea earlier this month, but his helicopter was forced to turn back to Seoul after heavy fog prevented it from landing at the frontier.

chang.kyong@stripes.com

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

North Korean soldiers attempt to stop one of their comrades from defecting to the South at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone, Nov. 13, 2017.
SCREENSHOT FROM U.N. COMMAND

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