The stunning escape occurred in broad daylight, the first defection across the DMZ in a decade. The soldier made his escape across the Joint Security Area (JSA), the portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand just a few hundred feet apart.
United Nations Command, which formally oversees the South Korean side of the JSA, says that the defector drove a jeep up to the scene until the tire of the vehicle got stuck in a ditch. "He then exited the vehicle and continued fleeing south across the line as he was fired upon by other soldiers from North Korea," it said in a statement. "The individual initially took cover near a building on the southern side of the JSA."
The defector was shot an estimated five times: twice in the back, twice in the shoulder and once in the thigh. In spite of these wounds, he made it to the South Korean side in critical condition. He was retrieved and airlifted to Ajou University Medical Center south of Seoul.
US and South Korean forces stationed along the DMZ raised their alert level, but no shots were exchanged between the two sides.
The shots at the North Korean soldier were the first to be fired in the JSA since 1984, when a defecting Soviet tourist sparked a firefight that left at least four dead and six wounded.
Lee Guk-jong, the surgeon at Ajou who operated on the soldier, said that the injuries were severe but the defector stood an excellent chance of recovery. "The hospital will decide on whether to conduct additional surgery after seeing how he recovers over the next two to three days," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chief Director of Operations Suh Wook told the National Assembly.
South Korean authorities decried the North Korean gunfire. "The accidental confrontation could have developed into a battle. The two Koreas should begin to talk via the [United Nations]," Defense Minister Song Young-moo said in a statement. "This shows why we have to reinstall the inter-Korean military communication network to manage volatile situations."
The DMZ is a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone that 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. It is considered the most heavily guarded border in the world, with barbed wire fences, military emplacements and land mines aplenty.
Although thousands of North Koreans defect to the South every year, it is very rare for them to do so through the shortest route, the DMZ. Most of the 30,000 North Koreans who have defected to the South since 1998 have done so by crossing through the border to China, then fleeing to sympathetic countries like Mongolia or Thailand, who "deport" them back to South Korea.
The last defection across the JSA occurred in 2007, and before that in 1998. Neither incident involved gunfire.