On November 4, 2020, the South Korean military deployed near the border with the North was put on high alert and sent to search for an unidentified person detected by technical controls. For the search operations, troops were placed on the “Jindogae” alert, which is issued to cope with a possible intrusion of armed guerrillas from North Korea. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK Armed Forces, a North Korean citizen may have crossed the border into Gangwon Province’s Goseong County late in the evening of the previous day.
About 10 hours after the recorded border crossing, a refugee from the DPRK in civilian clothes was detained. It was noted that “no unusual activity on the part of the North Korean military was detected,” and the North side was apparently unaware of the fact of the escape.
Little is known about the identity of the fugitive, only that he is in his 20s, a civilian, and at the time of his arrest he expressed his desire to remain in the South. This is not unusual – as a rule, the defector is interrogated for about a month to find out who he is and whether he is a spy from the North.
It was later revealed that the defector was first caught on surveillance cameras twice near the Military Demarcation Line.
A question was raised immediately as to why the siren used for the barricades did not go off during the climb, and it was not until the next day, November 5, that the military began to check the security systems on the inter-Korean border.
It is not yet known how the inspection ended or whether anyone was punished, but the November 24 issue of the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that the defector was a former gymnast who was able to overcome a barbed-wire fence three meters high thanks to his skills. And on November 26, Yonhap reported that the reason the border security sensor could not detect a North Korean jumping over fences was a loose screw inside the sensor control system. Apparently, due to external factors, such as strong wind or rain.
As a result, in spite of articles in the media, Defense Minister Seo Wook stated that he does not consider the incident to be yet another failure in border security efforts, although there are some aspects of it that need further development.
This is not the first time the border has been locked with a rusty latch. In July 2020, a North Korean defector charged with sexual assault fled across the western side of the border to his communist homeland. The South Korean military was left in the dark until North Korea reported the incident.
The maritime borders are at a similar level of “inviolability”. On May 24, 2020, a small boat used by illegal immigrants from China was found on the beach in the city of Taean. It was only after a local resident called the police about the boat after seeing it left untouched for several days that it finally got their attention. It was then discovered that the boat did not have a registered serial number and had an engine that is not used in South Korea, and security camera footage showed people leaving the boat and getting into a van waiting for them.
After some time the illegals were found and eventually caught. However, the Coast Guard’s explanation of “we knew immediately that they were illegals and therefore took our time” made us wonder: what if they had been saboteurs from the DPRK? The amazement escalated when it turned out that military radars, coastal CCTV and other surveillance equipment detected the boat SIX times, but the soldiers in charge of monitoring failed to detect it, and the Coast Guard did not spot it until the Chinese reached shore and fled.
According to a military spokesman, it was believed that it was a common boat used by civilians for recreational purposes. However, it turned out that a similar incident occurred in April when five Chinese men crossed the Yellow Sea border in the same kind of boat and arrived in Taean on April 19. Radars captured the boat three times, but law enforcement did not see it, and the relevant CCTV footage has since been deleted, as it is only kept for 30 days.
“To prevent the recurrence of such incidents, the military has vowed to strengthen its maritime surveillance position with more equipment and increased training for troops,” even considering the use of UAVs to better detect attempted illegal intrusions. Alas, on June 4, 2020, a rubber boat and two life jackets were found in virtually the same area, and again the Coast Guard took up the case after a local resident reported seeing the rubber boat for five to six days at an unused seawall.
However, this is nothing compared to an incident in June 2019, when a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans arrived at the South Korean port of Samcheok on the east coast, 130 kilometers south of the border, without being detected.
If we return to the “gymnast,” then even taking into account the extraordinary gymnastic training, the author believes it is an extremely difficult thing to jump a three-meter fence with barbed wire, and then overcome other complex fences and barriers, which include minefields. Of course, a video in which the defector demonstrated his gymnastic skills would have removed some of the suspicions, but for now the author thinks that the story of the skillful gymnast was invented by Defense Ministry officials in an attempt to answer the question of why the border was once again breached.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.