South Korea's military has come under fire after a special investigation team revealed Wednesday that a North Korean defector managed to reach the barracks of a South Korean front-line unit undetected, after crossing the inter-Korean border.
An Army unit on the eastern front originally announced that the North Korean soldier was spotted on a surveillance camera on Oct. 2 and was taken into custody by South Korean soldiers after he expressed his desire to defect to the South.
Two days later, however, an investigation team of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it discovered the soldiers on duty were unaware of the defector until he knocked on the door at the general outpost (GOP).
"The defector knocked on the door at the guard outpost and our soldiers went out and took him into custody," a senior military official said, asking anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A surveillance camera is installed at the GOP, but it did not record the border crossing at the time, the official said.
With on-site inspections still underway, the investigation team disclosed that the 22-year-old soldier climbed barbed wire fences north of the Demilitarized Zone at 8 p.m. on Oct. 2, according to officials. The 160 centimeter tall, 50 kilogram man then passed over the border fence in the South two hours later undetected.
Criticism mounted further as the military base was on heightened at the time alert following a reported sighting of a North Korean submarine in the East Sea earlier in the day, though it later turned out to be a misidentification.
Asked why the military has not promptly announced the soldier's defection during a parliamentary audit on Monday, JCS Chairman Jung Seung-jo told lawmakers the military makes it a rule not to disclose defections by soldiers to protect their relatives in the communist nation. He admitted, however, that the military had committed a "big mistake."
The latest revelation is expected to spark criticism of the military's attempt to cover up the case, which illustrates lax security on the frontier.
In a parliamentary audit on Monday, opposition lawmakers strongly censured the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying South Korean troops could have been harmed if the defector had been carrying weapons.
Although defections across the land border are rare, two other soldiers from the communist nation have made their way across the heavily armed border this year alone.
Just four days after the Oct. 2 defection, an 18-year-old solider defected Saturday after reportedly shooting two of his officers to death. Earlier, a third North Korean soldier crossed the land border into the South on Aug. 17, waving a white flag, an international symbol of capitulation.
It is widely known that the North selects its front-line soldiers from those with good family backgrounds and they pass tough screening because of concerns they may flee to the South.
The two Koreas remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. (Yonhap)