South Korea’s military faces criticism for security breaches along the country’s heavily armed border with North Korea after a man was able to cross south despite being seen multiple times by surveillance cameras.
The man, dressed in a wetsuit and fins, reportedly swam to South Korea in the early hours of February 16, but evaded capture for more than six hours, according to the Yonhap news agency.
After reaching the coast of South Korea via the East Sea, he reportedly crawled through a drainage tunnel within the demilitarized zone (DMZ), hid his wetsuit and fins, and walked, without be detected, on a road for about 5 km.
He was detained after a guard saw him through a CCTV camera and alerted his superiors.
When the chase began, the man had been captured five times by coastal surveillance cameras. They activated the alarms twice, but the soldiers did not heed the warnings and took no action. He was able to continue his journey after three cameras near a front-line military post failed to set off the alarm.
“The service members in charge of the guard did not comply with the due procedures and did not detect the unidentified man,” said an official of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. [JCS] he told Yonhap.
An investigation into the incident found that a guard in charge of the coastal surveillance team was addressing a computer problem and dismissed the alarms as technical errors, while a second guard at the military post had been distracted by a phone call.
The embarrassment of the military was compounded when it emerged that he had not even found out about the drainage tunnel the fugitive passed through during his flight from North Korea.
The man, who has allegedly said he wants to defect, made the dangerous journey into the depths of winter, raising questions about how he survived for so long in icy waters. The JCS said he had worn a padded jacket inside his wetsuit, adding that the tides would have worked in his favor.
Officials declined to give his name, describing him only as a fishing worker in his 20s. Reports say he may have been trying to hand himself over to South Korean civilians, fearing border guards will immediately force him back to the North.
The South Korean military was already facing criticism for security breaches after a North Korean civilian eluded capture for hours after crossing barbed wire fences last November.
He was detained after the surveillance team located him near the town of Goseong on the eastern edge of the DMZ, a 248 km (155 mile) strip of land littered with mines that separated the two Koreas since late 1950-53. war.
In 2019, four North Koreans crossed the maritime border undetected in a wooden boat before reaching a port on the east coast of South Korea.
Only a handful of the 31,000 North Koreans who have defected south made it through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone. The vast majority escape across North Korea’s long border with China and reach the South through a third country, often Thailand.