A North Korean man who crossed the heavily fortified border that divides the Korean peninsula has said he wants to defect to the South, officials in Seoul said on Thursday.
The man was taken into custody in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas on Wednesday, about 14 hours after he was first spotted crossing barbed wire fences installed along the border, prompting an urgent search operation.
The incident reportedly took place in the northeastern county of Goseong late on Tuesday.
The man was found by mobile troops within the civilian control line near the border, some 1.5km (0.9 miles) south of the fences, South Korean authorities said.
“I understand the person has expressed his willingness to defect,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) spokesman Kim Joon-rak told a briefing, declining to provide further details during because the investigation was continuing.
Sensors installed at the fences reportedly failed to go off when the unarmed man climbed over them. Authorities have launched an investigation into how he was able to cross the frontier, JCS said.
“We will look into why the sensors did not ring and make sure they operate properly,” another JCS official was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying, adding that the mountainous landscape of the eastern region made it difficult for the military to quickly capture the man.
Kim of the JCS said some parts of the fences equipped with electronic monitoring systems were found to have been damaged, possibly by typhoons.
There was no unusual movement from North Korean troops, the spokesman added.
The defection comes as Seoul reopens tours to the southern part of the DMZ, which has seen several armed clashes, but has also served as a venue for key inter-Korean events, including some of the most recent summits.
The tours were suspended in October 2019 after an outbreak of African swine fever broke out in North Korea and later due to concerns about the novel coronavirus.
The military has promised to beef up its surveillance measures and tighten discipline among service members in the wake of a series of security breaches recently, according to the Yonhap news agency.
This week’s DMZ crossing is the first since a North Korean soldier defected to the South in July 2019.
In June 2019, a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans also arrived at a South Korean port in the east coast town of Samcheok without being detected.
Another soldier crossed in 2018 and in a more dramatic 2017 incident, North Korean troops fired at a soldier when he drove an army truck through the DMZ.
Meanwhile, in July this year, a North Korean defector fled across the western side of the border to his communist homeland. The South Korean military had remained in the dark until North Korea reported the incident.
In another incident, a South Korean fisheries official was shot dead and his remains were reportedly burned by North Korean officials, after he tried to cross into the North in September, prompting a rare apology by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.