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North Korea Defector Swims To South, Evading Border Guards For 6 Hours

A man escaped North Korea last week by swimming several kilometers before coming ashore in the South, where he managed to evade border guards for more than six hours, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The Feb. 16 incident marks a second embarrassing breach in recent months of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, after another North Korean man claiming to be a former gymnast jumped over a fence in the DMZ and went undetected by South Korean guards for 14 hours in November.

On Tuesday, military officials in Seoul detailed the latest crossing, acknowledging that the unidentified man was captured on video 10 times before he was finally noticed by guards and apprehended.

Wearing a diving suit and flippers, the man swam at night in the East Sea — also known as the Sea of Japan — coming ashore at 1:05 a.m. about 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) inside South Korean territory, said the report, released by the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Yonhap news agency.

He then hid his suit and fins and, unnoticed by guards at a border observation post, entered a drainage conduit that went under barbed wire lining the beach, the report said.

"He presumably had swum for about six hours, wearing a padded jacket inside a diving suit and fins. His clothing appeared to have kept him warm and allowed him to stay afloat," an unnamed JCS officer told Yonhap. "The tidal current at that time also helped him come south."

The report said the man's movements were caught by security cameras five times between 1:05 a.m. and 1:38 a.m. and that his presence twice set off alarms without guards taking notice. Cameras along security fences also caught him several more times, the report said.

A soldier in charge of coastal surveillance was adjusting a computerized security system at the time one of the alarms was triggered, another unnamed JCS official was quoted by Yonhap as saying. Believing it to be an error, he ignored the alarm, the officials said, adding that the second alarm was missed because another soldier was distracted by a work-related phone call.

It wasn't until around 4 a.m., after the man had moved south some 5 kilometers (3 miles) along a road, that he was finally spotted by a guard monitoring a security camera. A three-hour manhunt ensued before he was ultimately captured at 7:27 a.m. inside a restricted area in the eastern border town of Goseong, located some 15 kilometers (9 miles) inside South Korea, the report said, according to Yonhap.

"Service members in charge of the guard duty failed to abide by due procedures and failed to detect the unidentified man," the JCS official told the news agency.

Last summer, a review of drainage conduits around the DMZ was ordered after a North Korean defector returned to the North via one of them on the western end of the border, Yonhap said.

"Over the course of the investigation, we've found three drainage tunnels, which are not on our list," the JCS official said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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