A North Korean defector wore a diving suit and fins during a daring six-hour swim around one of the world’s most fortified borders, said an official in Seoul and was only caught after apparently falling asleep.
Bungling South Korean forces did not detect the man’s bold exploitation despite appearing several times on CCTV after he landed and sounded the alarm, and took strong criticism from media and opposition parliamentarians.
Even after his presence was noticed, the man – who used diving equipment to get to sea around the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula – was not caught for another three hours.
The man, reportedly in his 20s, landed north of the city of Goseong on the east coast.
“He had probably been swimming for about six hours with a padded jacket inside a diving suit and fins. His clothes seemed to have kept him warm and enabled him to stay afloat,” an unnamed Yonhap chief of staff was quoted as saying. news agency on Tuesday.
Tide currents worked in his favor, the official said, and he abandoned most of his equipment before getting through a drainage channel under the barbed wire fences that run along the coast.
For more than three hours, surveillance cameras captured him eight times, audible alarms sounded twice, but border guards did not notice.
Eventually a hunt was launched and troops found him three hours later, apparently asleep, his face mask hanging in a tree.
Officials say the defector, who is believed to have been a civilian in the north, has expressed a desire to defect.
The military’s recognized troops had “failed to follow proper procedures” and promised to strengthen border security.
And in a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Suh Wook acknowledged that surveillance systems in the area were “malfunctioning and outdated”.
Only a handful of northern defectors ever cross the DMZ directly or swim past the sea border – although the last publicly known incident was in November, when safety issues were also raised.
Most defectors instead travel first to neighboring China and sometimes stay there for several years before continuing south via third countries.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled south over the decades, but the number dropped to just 229 last year, after Pyongyang imposed a strict border closure to protect itself from the coronavirus that first appeared in neighboring and key China.
The incident was proof that the South Korean military was “close to near collapse,” the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo said on Wednesday.
“Is this device the only device that does not do its job properly? We do not believe,” it added in a statement.