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UN Command postpones plan to release footage of N. Korean defector’s dramatic escape

A sign shows the demarcation line at the Bridge of no Return on the South Korean side of the DMZ, on June 16, 2007.

EDWARD N. JOHNSON/U.S. ARMY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 17, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — The United Nations Command has put off a plan to release video footage of a North Korean soldier’s dramatic escape across a jointly patrolled area in the heart of the Demilitarized Zone.

The soldier defected to the South on Monday by driving a military jeep to the line that divides the peninsula, then rushing across it under a hail of gunfire from his former comrades.

The defector was severely wounded by the gunfire and has been hospitalized. His doctor, Lee Guk-jong, told reporters his condition was stabilized after a second operation on Wednesday, but he was riddled with parasites that were complicating his recovery.

Officials with the UNC, which is commanded by U.S. Army Gen. Vincent Brooks and has authority over the Joint Security Area, said earlier this week they would make public footage from surveillance cameras that monitored the border dash.

But the UNC issued a press release Friday summarizing already-known facts of the case and saying it will not release more details or material until an investigation is completed.

The reversal prompted protests from South Korean news organizations belonging to the defense ministry’s press pool, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

When asked about the complaints, UNC public affairs officials said only that Brooks, who is also commands U.S. Forces Korea, is the release authority on the video.

Yonhap reported that defense ministry officials previewed a clip that had been edited to 26 seconds by the UNC but expressed concern it may cause confusion without more context amid criticism that troops on the southern side should have returned fire.

The controversy prompted President Moon Jae-in’s office to defend the decision, saying soldiers acted in accordance with U.N. rules of engagement for the area and that South Korean officials had no control over those.

Questions also have been raised over whether the North Koreans giving chase to the defector crossed the demarcation line themselves or fired into the South Korean side. Either move would be a violation of the 1953 armistice agreement.

The high-profile defection, which occurred in the only area where soldiers from the two sides come face to face, came amid high tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 war, but it’s rare for soldiers to flee across the DMZ. North Korean soldiers defected across the JSA in 2007 and 1998.

But Monday’s incident was the first time shooting has erupted in the area since 1984 when a Soviet defector fled across the border, prompting a gun battle that left several from both sides dead or injured.

The UNC said the defector, presumed to be a member of the North Korean army, was recovered by a UNC joint security battalion consisting of U.S. and South Korean troops “a short time” after running south across the Military Demarcation Line.

The DMZ is a 2.5-mile wide, 150-mile-long buffer zone lined with barbed wire and dotted with landmines.

The JSA – with its row of iconic blue conference buildings that straddle the border - 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. Trump tried to make a surprise visit to the DMZ last week, but his helicopter was forced to turn back to Seoul after heavy fog prevented it from landing at the frontier.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

 

A concrete berm inside the Joint Security Area represents the Military Demarcation Line that separates North Korea, left, and the South.
AARON KIDD/STARS AND STRIPES

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