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.