The soldier attempted to cross the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 2.5-mile buffer zone between the two Koreas. With border fences and significant military presences on either side, the DMZ is considered to be the most heavily guarded border in the world.
The North Korean soldier was guarding the Pyongyang's side of the DMZ when he suddenly broke for the south. His fellow soldiers opened fire on him, landing shots into his shoulder and elbow — but he kept running, eventually making his way to the other side of the DMZ, according to a Seoul statement.
The soldier came up upon "Freedom House," a reception building that is meant to be the threshold between South Korea and the DMZ. He was found bleeding on the ground after about 25 minutes by South Korean forces and subsequently airlifted to a hospital by a United Nations helicopter.
The soldier's name, rank and reason for defecting are not known at this time. He was unarmed at the time of his retrieval, and his uniform indicated that he was probably of a lower rank. However, children of North Korean elites are often deployed to the DMZ, as it's a position of great symbolic significance.
According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, which oversees the affairs of North Korean defectors, he is the first person to defect by crossing the DMZ since 2007.
Because the DMZ is a landmine-infested nightmare that nobody is meant to be able to cross, few North Korean defectors try. Most of the 30,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since 1998 have done so by crossing through the DPRK's border with China, then fleeing to sympathetic countries like Mongolia or Thailand — whereupon they are "deported" to South Korea.
After the defector was retrieved, the South Korean military raised their alert level and prepared for engagement — but no reprisal came from their northern neighbor.
The DMZ was created in 1953 as part of the armistice that ended hostilities of the Korean War — but not the war itself, meaning the two Koreas are still technically at war with one another. Since then, the DMZ has become a flashpoint for conflict, such as an incident in August 2015, when the two sides exchanged artillery fire with no casualties.
In 1998, North Korean Captain Pyon Yong-kwan defected to the South in the same manner as the unknown soldier.