Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Switching Koreas: Rare defections across the DMZ

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — Gun battles, high-speed car crashes, sprints through minefields: defections across the Demilitarised Zone separating North and South Korea are dangerous and exceptionally rare. But one US soldier managed to cross this week.

Most of the border between the two Koreas is heavily fortified. But at the truce village of Panmunjom — also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA) — the frontier is marked only by a low concrete divider and is relatively easy to cross, despite soldiers on both sides.

AFP takes a look at who else has crossed the border, in either direction:

US soldier

Private second class Travis King was on a tourist trip to the DMZ when — shouting “ha ha ha”, according to an eyewitness — he ran off and crossed the border into North Korea “willfully and without authorisation”, US officials said.

A Seoul official and police told AFP that King had been released from South Korean prison on July 10, after serving around two months on assault charges.

The Yonhap news agency reported he was also suspected of “repeatedly kicking a back door of a police patrol vehicle in Seoul’s Mapo district” in October last year and shouting “foul language” at police trying to apprehend him.

He was also suspected of punching a Korean national at a nightclub in September, it added.

CBS News, citing US officials, reported that the low-ranking soldier was being escorted home to the United States for disciplinary reasons, but managed to leave the airport and join the tour group.

The United Nations Command said he was believed to be in North Korean custody and that it was working with Pyongyang’s military to “resolve this incident”.

North Korean soldier

In 2017, a low-ranking North Korean soldier made a rare and dramatic defection driving to the heavily guarded border at speed and dashing across Panmunjom under a hail of bullets.

North Korean guards fired several rounds at then-24-year-old Oh Chong Song, as he raced across the frontier in broad daylight and took cover near a building on the south side.

He suffered several gunshot wounds from the defection and underwent multiple operations.

Appearing on a South Korean TV show later, Oh said he grew up listening to the South’s music and longed for its culture and dreamed of escaping North Korea.

Soviet student

In 1984, a Soviet student sprinted across the border, triggering a 30-minute gun battle between the two sides that left three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean dead.

The student, Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok, from the Moscow Institute of International Relations — where would-be diplomats and intelligence officers were trained — was on a tour of the facility from the North’s side.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University who was there that day as part of the tour group, told NK News that Matuzok asked a fellow student to take a picture of him before sprinting to the other side.

North Korean guards tried to chase him and immediately drew their weapons and began shooting, in what became one of the bloodiest events at the JSA in history.

Matuzok, who was unhurt, later told American officers that he did it because it was his first-ever chance to flee to the West.

North Korean journalist

In 1967, a North Korean journalist defected through the JSA, also sparking a gunfight.

Lee Soo Keun, then vice-president of the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, was covering talks between North Korea and the United Nations Command when he secretly asked US officials to help him defect.

His dramatic defection was a propaganda boon for the South, where he was given a hero’s welcome and received a house, a car, cash and other gifts.

The Seoul government even helped Lee — who had a wife and three children in the North — marry a US-educated college lecturer in his new home, where he went on anti-communist lecture tours.

But two years later, unhappy with his life in the South, Lee was caught trying to leave on a fake passport disguised in a wig and a fake moustache.

He was swiftly convicted of spying for the North and hanged.

In 2018, a Seoul court absolved him of espionage, ruling that he had been wrongfully executed based on fabricated charges.

American soldier

Aged 21, James Joseph Dresnok ran across the heavily fortified and mined demilitarised zone to Kijong-dong, a North Korean border village, in 1962.

At the time he had been divorced by his wife and was facing court martial.

In 2017, his two sons — wearing Korean People’s Army uniforms and speaking with heavy North Korean accents — confirmed their father’s death in a video interview posted on a propaganda website.

During his life in the North, Dresnok was cast in several films, mostly playing the role of an American villain, and became a celebrity in the country.

He was the subject of a British documentary, “Crossing the Line”, in 2006 and expressed satisfaction with his life in Pyongyang, whose citizens enjoy better standards of living than those elsewhere in the isolated country.

He also told CBS that he would not leave even if “you put a billion damn dollars of gold on the table”.


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