SEOUL (Reuters) - A North Korean border guard briefly crossed the border with the South in the chase for a defector last week - a violation of the ceasefire accord between North and South, a video released on Wednesday by the U.N. Command (UNC) in Seoul showed.
The North Koreans were only steps behind the young man when they shot him at least four times as he made his escape on Nov. 13. The video, filmed as the defector drove an army truck through the demilitarized zone and then abandoned the vehicle, gives a dramatic insight into his escape.
The defector, identified by a surgeon as a 24-year-old with the family name Oh, was flown by a U.S. military helicopter to a hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul. Doctors said he had regained consciousness, having had two operations to extract the bullets, and his breathing was stable and unassisted.
“He is fine,” lead surgeon Lee Cook-Jong said at a news conference in Suwon. “He is not going to die.”
A UNC official said North Korea had been informed on Wednesday that it had violated the 1953 armistice agreement, which marked the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War.
The UNC official told a news conference that a soldier from the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) had crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the border between the two Koreas, for a few seconds as others fired shots at the defecting soldier.
“The key findings of the special investigation team are that the KPA violated the armistice agreement by one, firing weapons across the MDL, and two, by actually crossing the MDL temporarily,” Chad Carroll, Director of Public Affairs for the UNC, told reporters.
The incident comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the international community over its nuclear weapons programme, but Pyongyang has not publicly responded to the defection.
The video, released by the UNC, was produced from surveillance cameras on the southern side of the the Joint Security Area (JSA) inside the demilitarized zone. When tree cover is too dense to see the wounded defector crawling across the border, it switches to infra-red.
The film begins with a lone dark green army jeep speeding along empty, tree-lined roads towards the border.
At one checkpoint, a North Korean guard marches impassively towards the approaching vehicle. It races by. He runs in pursuit.
After passing a memorial to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, where tourists often gather, the jeep runs into a ditch just metres from the border, which is not clearly marked.
For several minutes the driver tries to free the vehicle, but the wheels spin uselessly in fallen leaves.
The driver abandons the vehicle and sprints away, pushing tree branches out of his way and sending leaves flying.
He scrambles up a slope to cross just seconds before more guards appear, shooting as they run.
One slides into a pile of dead leaves to open fire before running forward and appearing to briefly cross the dividing line between the two countries. He quickly turns on his heel.
The video does not show the moment the defector is hit, but he is seen lying in a pile of brush next to a concrete wall in a later edited clip.
The UNC’s Carroll said the position was still exposed to North Korean checkpoints across the border.
Allied troops operating the cameras had by then notified their commanders and a quick reaction force had assembled on the South Korean side, according to Carroll. The video does not show this force.
Infrared imagery shows two South Korean soldiers crawling through undergrowth to drag the wounded North Korean to safety, while the deputy commander of the border security unit oversees the rescue from a few metres away.
Doctors have conducted a series of surgeries to remove four bullets from the critically wounded soldier, who arrived at the hospital having lost a large amount of blood.
“From a medical point of view he was almost dead when he was first brought here,” said the surgeon, Lee.
Hospital officials said the man remains in intensive care.
The soldier showed signs of depression and possible trauma, in addition to a serious case of parasites that has complicated his treatment, the hospital said in a statement. Lee said last week one of the flesh-coloured parasites he removed from the soldier’s digestive tract was 27 cm (10.6 in) long.
Continuing stress made the soldier hesitant to talk, but he had been cooperative, doctors said.
The patient first recovered consciousness on Sunday, and asked where he was in South Korea, Lee said. He was in “agony” when he came to, the surgeon added.
Since then doctors have played South Korean pop music for him, and American action movies including “The Transporter” from 2002.
On average more than 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year, but most travel via China and numbers have fallen since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. It is unusual for a North Korean to cross the land border dividing the two Koreas. They have been in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The last time a North Korean soldier had defected across the JSA was in 2007.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Christine Kim, and James Pearson; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Sara Ledwith