For the first time since relations have begun to warm between the two Koreas, a North Korean soldier defected across the militarized border dividing the nations on Saturday. While the defection may offer strong indications that the quality of life among North Korea’s people has not improved under continued economic sanctions, North Korea’s formal reaction to the incident may actually bolster hopes for continued peace talks between the two states.
The last time a North Korean soldier made a dash across the border into South Korea was in November of 2017. That soldier, later identified as Oh Chong Song, was shot five times as he made his break for South Korean territory. 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. There, doctor’s soon realized Oh’s condition was exacerbated by his body’s weak state — his stomach, for instance, contained only hardened corn kernels and a massive parasitic infection.
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.
This 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. North Korea has been amidst a draw-down of border forces in recent months, prompted by their improving relations with the South.
While defections into South Korea are not especially uncommon, defections of this sort certainly are. Most North Korean defectors escape through China, eventually finding their way to a South Korean embassy.
The North Korean soldiers opting not to aggressively pursue the defector could send a dangerous message to other North Koreans living in extremely difficult circumstances. Troops stationed near the border are traditionally given the best rations and resources, so the dire state of North Korea’s border troops is a strong indicator of just how bad things may be for the average citizen living under the economic stagnation brought about by their leader’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental platforms to carry them. 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.