What’s extraordinary (and what isn’t) about a North Korean soldier’s defection at Panmunjom

It has been an eventful day along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). South Korean authorities say that a 58-year-old Louisiana man was found on the wrong side of the Civilian Control Line, where he was doing something “for political purposes.” Details to follow, presumably.

The ROK Joint Chiefs have also confirmed that a North Korean soldier defected today through the Joint Security Area or JSA, the most visible and sensitive part of the DMZ. The soldier bolted from his guard post on the north side and sprinted for the Military Demarcation Line. On the way, his (former) comrades shot him in the shoulder and elbow.

I can’t help thinking that with better diplomacy, this could have been a simple one-for-one swap without the need for gunplay.

Fortunately, the wounded North Korean soldier made it over the MDL and fell 50 meters inside the South Korean side. (Imagine what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.) This may be one of the few people who can think back on the day he was shot twice as the luckiest of his life. Via Yonhap and Jonathan Cheng, the Wall Street Journal‘s Seoul Bureau Chief, here’s a diagram of how it all went down:


After what must have been the longest 25 minutes of his life, some very brave ROK soldiers crawled out under the observation of the North Koreans and dragged him back to safety. The ROKs then airlifted him to a hospital. Here’s hoping he recovers fully.

Here’s hoping, too, that his family back in North Korea will survive the experience.

Thankfully, those were the only shots fired in that incident. Still, the 25-minute delay suggests a too-lengthy decision cycle by the ROK Army command. The fact that the North Korean soldier fell on the happy side of the line should have resolved the question of retrieving him, although the ROK Army may have needed a few minutes to bring in some back-up firepower.

None of which diminishes the courage of the young South Korean soldiers who saved the wounded North Korean soldier. Imagine serving at the world’s most dangerous border, hearing gunshots, seeing a young North Korean soldier lying wounded and bleeding in a place exposed to enemy fire, and risking your own life to crawl out and drag him to safety. Those men deserve medals.

While hunting for a good image of the JSA, I also found this one from 1956, when Pyongyang clearly felt much more self-assured about the loyalty of its soldiers. A scene like this would be unthinkable today:


North Korea’s secrecy tempts us to extrapolate anecdotes into trends, and extrapolation can be a dangerous temptation, but there’s enough recent data to allow us to contextualize this anecdote. This blog carefully monitors evidence of defections, fratricides, fraggings, corruption, and other signs of indiscipline in the North Korean military. There has been ample evidence of military defections to document in recent years, at both low ranks and high (including a MiG pilot and at least two ranking officials in the security forces). That evidence was enough to cause me to ask, two years ago, whether the North Korean military was falling apart, and I’m not alone in asking that question. Two other North Korean soldiers defected through the DMZ in June of this year.

Defections from front-line North Korean units are especially significant. Those units aren’t the glorified construction brigades whose soldiers one sees hitching rides on the backs of trucks in tourists’ “rare glimpse” Flickr streams. Pyongyang posts its best-trained and most-disciplined units to the DMZ, and the soldiers at the JSA are the hand-picked elite of this elite. As Yonhap’s report notes, “The defection through the JSA marks a very rare case, given that North Korean soldiers stationed on the frontline are reportedly cherry-picked for their loyalty to the North Korean regime.” Defections across the heavily mined DMZ also involve much more risk than defections across the Yalu River. There may be no riskier place to defect than the JSA, for reasons this story illustrates well enough.

Defections at the JSA are extraordinary. I’ve searched my memory, my archives, and Google, and came up with no prior cases of North Korean soldiers defecting there in recent times. NHK claims that there were two previous defections at Panmunjom in 2007 and 1998, but my internet searches yield no other evidence of that. (If you can find any, kindly post a link or a partial text in the comments.) The closest thing I found was the case of a Soviet man who defected through the JSA in 1984, instigating a firefight that killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier.

The maximum effective range of an AK-47 is 460 meters, so it does not speak well of NKPA marksmanship that these soldiers failed in their fratricide attempts. I’m grateful that the brave South Korean soldiers who ran out and rescued the soldier weren’t shot at. Presumably, the soldiers at the JSA — on both sides — have strict rules of engagement. That affirms that Pyongyang is, deep down, just as concerned about one incident escalating into a full-scale war as we are. Pyongyang’s rhetoric about hair triggers and declarations of war notwithstanding, its military provocations are both calculated and calibrated to induce fear and shock in the U.S. and South Korean governments without instigating undue escalation.

Consider the implications of this: at a time of even-higher-than-usual military tensions, North Korea’s most disciplined soldiers had orders not to fire at South Korean soldiers — at least, not on the other side of the MDL — but did have orders to fire on their own comrades. This suggests that Pyongyang doubts the loyalty of its most loyal soldiers, with the possible exception of the Bodyguard Command.

Oh right, I almost forgot about the soldier who was training to become a member of the Bodyguard Command when he defected in July.

Both defections must surely represent rare intelligence windfalls. I wonder why these men fled. I wonder what their stories can tell us about the potential of a message of rice, peace, and freedom to influence the cohesion, loyalty, and war-readiness of the comrades they left behind. I wonder how many lives that knowledge could save.

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Update: A newer report tells us, first, that the defecting soldier is in very grave condition and may not survive, and second, that he drove to the DMZ in a car.

A North Korean soldier who defected to South Korea via the truce village of Panmunjom earlier this week drove a car to the area, the authorities said Tuesday.

“(He) then exited the vehicle and continued fleeing south” across the military demarcation line (MDL) after being shot by North Korean troops, according to the United Nations Command (UNC).

The individual, presumed to be a North Korean soldier, “initially took cover near a building on the southern side of the JSA,” the UNC said, using the abbreviation for the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Four North Korean soldiers chased him, firing shots with their pistols and AK-47 rifles, an official at the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, citing CCTV footage of the scene.

He was hit by five rounds while running away from the North in the area inside the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ), he added.

It’s also unclear whether the North’s troops actually crossed the MDL, even for seconds, during the hunt. [Yonhap]

I’ll make a high-confidence assumption that it’s very rare for junior enlisted North Korean soldiers to own or drive cars — even to know how to drive a car. Unless this soldier stole the car, he must have been the son of someone of very high rank. That also raises the question of what unit the soldier belonged to, if just barely. Presumably, to drive to the DMZ on the North Korean side would require one to pass multiple checkpoints that would spot an AWOL soldier. The North Korean units charged with guarding the JSA wouldn’t have let an AWOL soldier from another unit into the area. On balance, then, the soldier probably was assigned to the units at the JSA, but there’s obviously more to the story.

Here’s hoping he recovers. If you believe that God intervenes in earthy events, this is your chance to make your petition on behalf of someone who will never thank you.

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Update: It looks like the “car” was a military vehicle, which would explain how he got it.

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Update: There are more current, detailed reports on the soldier’s defection and condition in the Wall Street Journal, Joongang Ilbo, and Stars and Stripes. It sounds like this young man’s life is hanging by a thread, and I have an awful sense of dread that he won’t make it.

He may die, but so will the system that tried to kill him, as it killed so many others. Something has changed in the last two years. For all the suffering Kim Jong-il caused, the elites mostly trusted him, and they rarely defected when he was alive. In the last two years, it has become common to hear reports of overseas workers, members of elite military units, officials in the security forces, money launderers, and even diplomats defecting. And from this incident, it should be clear that fear is the only thing preventing others from doing the same.

So while the overall number of defections has declined sharply under Kim Jong-un — mostly because of the resources he has diverted to fencing his own people in — the political rank of those who have defected has risen sharply, too. We used to see a debate that maybe Kim Jong-un’s purges meant that he’d consolidated control, and then again, maybe they meant that he hadn’t. But by now, it’s clear that he hasn’t won them over. If you listen to Thae Yong-ho, the purges have terrified and alienated the elites, just as I’d predicted. That’s all the more significant when you consider that Kim Jong-un’s main priorities have been first, to restore the isolation of his people; second, to make a lot of missiles and nukes; and third, to win the Pyongyang elites over by showering them with leisure facilities, luxury goods, and new housing.

Of course, you also could say that purges had sown discontent among the elites in the U.S.S.R. in 1938, but Stalin had two things going for him that Kim Jong-un does not. For one, he was Stalin, and for another, in a few short years, Hitler would give the Soviet people a reason to unite around him. Pray that history doesn’t repeat. On the other hand, as I write, Robert Mugabe is being overthrown by his own army. Some things seem impossible until they aren’t.


  1. “That affirms that Pyongyang is, deep down, just as concerned about one incident escalating into a full-scale war as we are”

    Kim Jong Un and his ass licking generals know that full-scale war represents the total destruction for the current regime and Pyongyang as we know it today. They are also aware that Moon Jae In has no power to override Trump if we decide to react in a decisive way to one of their probing provocations..

    Even one of his hand picked and supposedly loyal soldiers knows that KJU, the short and fat guy, is no match for the old dotard billionaire leader of the strongest country in the entire universe.

    Its about time that we stop giving this young punk “leader” (who is afraid to travel outside NK because he is incompetent, insecure and most importantly scared) any more respect than we shall give to a known terrorist and start the process to decapitate him.


  2. That 1956 DPRK soldier has oversized pants with the belt over his navel/belly button.
    A one-for-one swap the blog author says<—insanity. DPRK soldiers are not going to get the attention of diplomats when one wants to defect south. The Louisiana traveler: we do not know the convoluted story yet. Obviously, he slipped in from some tourist area.