A North Korean soldier was shot by his comrades as he defected to the South on Monday in an extremely rare crossing via the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone, military officials said.
The defection came less than a week after President Donald Trump traveled to South Korea to pledge solidarity with the longtime U.S. ally amid soaring tensions over the growing nuclear and missile threat from the North.
The soldier fled from his guard post in the jointly controlled area where the two sides face each other across the line that divides the peninsula, according to South Korea’s military.
Other North Korean forces opened fire, wounding the soldier as he advanced toward the South Korean side’s reception building known as the Freedom House, an official said, reading a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, but it’s unusual for soldiers to flee across the so-called DMZ, a 2.5-mile wide, 150-mile-long buffer zone lined with barbed wire and dotted with landmines.
It’s rarer for them to leave their posts in the Joint Security Area, which is controlled on the southern side by the U.S.-led United Nations Command. South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees defectors, said the last time it happened was in 2007.
The North Korean soldier, who was shot in the shoulder and elbow, was airlifted to a hospital by a United Nations Command helicopter, another military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in exchange for providing the details.
The South Korean military found him bleeding about 25 minutes after several rounds of gunfire were heard, the official said, adding the North Korean soldier was unarmed and wearing a combat uniform indicating a low rank.
The military said the two sides did not trade gunfire, but it has raised its alert level and is maintaining a full readiness posture against the possibility of provocations from North Korea.
Panmunjom, home to the JSA, is the only point where U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand face to face with North Korean soldiers. It has become a popular tourist site and visitors can even walk into North Korea while inside one of the blue conference buildings that straddle the Military Demarcation Line.
The 1953 armistice that ended three years of fighting between the U.S.-backed South and the communist-backed North was signed in one of the blue buildings. The agreement left the sides technically at war, and some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are based in South Korea.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials have recently used the area as a backdrop to pledge their resolve against the North and solidarity with the South. North Korean soldiers often film them, coming within a few feet of the dignitaries.
Former presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made the pilgrimage to the area.
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.
Violence has broken out in the area in the past. In 1984, a Soviet tourist sprinted across the demarcation line from North Korea in a bid to defect, prompting a gun battle that killed and wounded several soldiers from both sides.
Two American soldiers also were killed in the DMZ by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers in a 1976 brawl over an attempt to trim a poplar tree. That prompted Washington to send nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to intimidate the North before the adversaries pulled back from the brink of conflict.
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