On North Korean managed to reach the South by swimming for six hours to circumvent one of the most militarized borders in the world, announced Wednesday a South Korean official, a daring odyssey which also points out the deficiencies of the surveillance of Seoul. The exploit sparked a deluge of criticism from the South Korean opposition and media, devastated to discover that the fugitive had not been spotted by the South Korean military as he appeared several times on security cameras and that its passage even triggered alarms.
And, when his presence was finally reported, it took three hours to arrest the man, who had donned a wetsuit and fins to bypass the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The man, reportedly in his 20s, made landfall north of Goseong, a town on the east coast.
Discovered asleep by the authorities
“He likely swam for around six hours, wearing a padded jacket under his wetsuit and wearing fins. His clothes helped him stay warm and stay afloat, ”said a joint staff official quoted by the South Korean Yonhap agency, who did not specify his name.
The tidal currents worked in his favor, he observed, and he abandoned all his equipment before using a water evacuation pipe passing under barbed wire theoretically prohibiting access to the sea in this part of the coastline. For over three hours, he appeared on CCTV cameras eight times, and audible alarms sounded twice. But the soldiers responsible for guarding the border did not notice it. When the hunt was launched, the soldiers took three hours to find him, visibly asleep.
“Outdated” surveillance systems
Officials said the man, who was presumably a civilian, expressed a desire to defect. The army acknowledged that the military “had not followed the procedures”, and promised to strengthen the surveillance systems. During a parliamentary hearing, the Minister of Defense, Suh Wook, explained that the surveillance systems in this sector were “outdated and malfunctioning”.
It is estimated that around 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty in their country to the South since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). But that figure fell to just 229 last year, due to the strict border closures ordered by Pyongyang to fight the coronavirus.
The vast majority defected, crossing the border with China first. Crossings of the DMZ, an area riddled with barbed wire fences and minefields and patrolled by thousands of soldiers, and the maritime border are rare. The last such known passage dates back to November. Already, questions had been raised about the deficiencies of the surveillance. The conservative daily Chosun Ilbo said Wednesday that the swimmer’s feat was proof that the South Korean military was “close to collapse.” “Is this unit the only one that is not doing its job well?” We don’t believe, ”he said in an editorial.