SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean guards fired warning shots across the heavily militarised border with North Korea yesterday as a soldier from the North defected in thick fog, complicating efforts to ease tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
A South Korean defence ministry official said up to 20 warning shots were fired as North Korean troops approached too near the “military demarcation line” at the demilitarised zone (DMZ), apparently in search of the missing soldier.
Yesterday’s defection came about five weeks after a North Korean soldier suffered critical gunshot wounds during a defection dash across the border.
Two North Korean civilians were also found in a fishing boat on Wednesday and had sought to defect, officials in the South said.
That brings the total number of North Koreans who have defected by taking dangerous routes either directly across the border or by sea to 15 so far this year, including two other soldiers. That is three times the number last year, according to South Korean officials.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula were already high after reclusive, impoverished North Korea accelerated testing of its missile and nuclear programmes this year in defiance of international pressure and UN sanctions.
The defections also threaten to complicate South Korea’s efforts to ensure the smooth running of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin in Pyeongchang in February.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday he had proposed postponing major military drills with the United States until after the games in an attempt to soothe relations, although officials in Seoul later said any proposed delay would depend on the North not engaging in any “provocations”.
In a notice published online, the US military’s 8th Army said a “significant number of North Korean propaganda leaflets and CDs” had been distributed at “strategic locations” on multiple US military bases in South Korea.
The notice called on troops to report any suspicious individuals to help combat potential “insider threats” that could disrupt military operations.
Seoul says more than 880 North Koreans have defected to the South so far this year, but the vast majority have taken a less dangerous route through China.
However, the North’s state media sharply denyied US allegations that Pyongyang was behind a number of recent cyber attacks.