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[Newsmaker] N. Korean man redefected unnoticed although military cameras spotted him 5 times

Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS, speaks during a brief held on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS, speaks during a brief held on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s military said Wednesday that it failed to stop a North Korean defector even though he was caught on surveillance cameras five times.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff on Wednesday disclosed the results of its on-site investigation into how the 30-something North Korean man returned to the North Saturday night.

The military currently believes that the defector is the same person who defected to the South in November 2020.

The military first spotted him approaching the border region at 12:51 p.m. The military sent a warning message after spotting him through a surveillance camera near the Civilian Control Line. The military, however, took no further action.

At 6:36 p.m. Saturday, the man crossed the barbed-wire fence into the Demilitarized Zone. An alarm was sounded, and the military dispatched six units to the site to check the fence. The units, however, failed to notice any traces of an attempt to cross the fence.

The military also failed to spot him entering the DMZ, although he was caught on three surveillance cameras at the general outpost five times.

The JCS claimed that the military failed to notice the defector in the first place as the camera footage was blurry, and the place where the man crossed the fence was behind a guard post, which made difficult to spot him.

The JCS also said that the time log of the recordings stored in the server was different from the time the event actually took place. In other words, after the alarm sounded, the military was reviewing the security footage at the wrong time, and thus had missed him.

The military’s operation to capture him finally started around three hours later, at 9:17 p.m., when the military’s thermal observation device detected the man in the DMZ.

The military, however, was mistaken once more for assuming the man was trying to defect to the South. The military initially thought of him as a North Korean seeking to defect to the South, the JCS said.

It was by 10:49 p.m. when the military confirmed that the man was north of the inter-Korean border.

The JCS apologized for its major security failure.

“Our military takes this situation seriously,” said Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS. Jeon added that the military will take steps to improve mission capabilities and surveillance systems.

South Korea’s military has faced mounting distrust due to the latest border crossing incident, which came after the military’s recent commitment to prevent a recurrence of security lapses in recent years.

In February last year, a North Korean man swam ashore into the South undeterred. In November 2020, a North Korean civilian, whom the military presumes to be the same person who defected to the North on Saturday, crossed the inter-Korean border undeterred.

By Shim Woo-hyun (