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Defense chief apologizes over border security breach

Defense Minister Suh Wook attends a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee to brief lawmakers on the latest North Korean defection, Feb. 17, 2021. (Yonhap)
Defense Minister Suh Wook attends a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee to brief lawmakers on the latest North Korean defection, Feb. 17, 2021. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s Defense Minister Suh Wook on Wednesday apologized for the latest lapse in border security after a North Korean man swam across the eastern maritime border unnoticed.

The man, who was taken into custody Tuesday hours after being spotted by military surveillance personnel, is believed to be a civilian in his 20s seeking to defect. He was captured walking along the road on the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

“Commanders and the rank and file service members are all working to prevent recurring lapses in security, but clearly, we’ve fallen short of that effort,” Suh said at a meeting of the parliamentary defense committee, convened to brief lawmakers on the case.

This marks the second embarrassing security breach since November for the military. Then, a former North Korean gymnast scaled the fence along the inter-Korean border, and loose screws on the fence prevented an alarm system from activating and immediately alerting the military.

In the latest case, Suh said, the North Korean man swam here in a wet suit with flippers, which the military retrieved on the eastern shore. But questions linger over how he could have made it to the South in winter weather without any military training.

Suh’s explanation also contradicts the military’s own internal documents that say a diver can remain conscious for about 45 minutes at 8 degrees Celsius, the water temperature on that day. Some military experts, however, suggest that advanced wet suits can extend that time.

Meanwhile, Suh said South Korea and the US should press ahead with joint military drills slated for the second week of March, since they aim to mount a defense against North Korea. For nine days, the two allies will take part in computer-simulated war games.

Suh said the biannual drills, which Seoul and Washington have held to deter aggression from Pyongyang since the 1953 Korean War armistice, do not violate the 2018 inter-Korean military pact to end hostile acts. But the two Koreas could discuss them in military talks, he added.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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