Relations have begun to warm between the two Koreas, so when a North Korean soldier defected across the militarized border dividing the nations on Saturday, there was little fanfare. So North Korea’s lack of formal reaction to the incident may actually bolster hopes for continued peace talks between the two states.
Last year (November 2017) when another North Korean soldier, Oh Chong Song, made a dash across the border into South Korea, he was shot five times by fellow soldiers as he made his break. UN and South Korean troops had to low crawl to his position under threat of North Korean gunfire to drag him to safety before placing him aboard a UN helicopter to be flown to the nearest hospital for treatment.
As dangerous as that crossing proved to be for Oh, the response from North Korean troops proved an even larger cause for concern. North Korean soldiers, aware that they would be held responsible for permitting Oh’s defection, briefly crossed the border into South Korean territory during their pursuit, and even fired rounds over the border that hit structures on the South Korean side of the dividing line. South Korea chose to respond with stern warnings at the time, choosing not to escalate the already tense situation.
Soon thereafter, it was reported that the troops stationed at the border had all been transferred elsewhere in favor of a new staff of border guards. The presumption at the time was that the transfer was punitive, as a result of their failure to prevent the defection, rather than their violation of the demilitarized zone.
Last weekend’s defection, on the other hand, could be described as mundane, by comparison. According to reports, the soldier that defected was found walking across the eastern sector of the Demilitarized Zone. He was escorted into custody where he’ll undergo a debriefing aimed at determining his reasons for defection. There were no unusual troop movements reported along the North Korean side of the border following the defection, nor did any soldiers apparently pursue this latest defector as he made his escape.
The North Korean soldiers opting not to aggressively pursue the defector could send a dangerous message to other North Koreans. However, it sends an equally strong message to South Korea — seemingly demonstrating a new approach to relations between the two states; potentially one that no longer sees the “other” Korea as a mortal enemy.
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