TOKYO — A North Korean soldier was fighting for his life Tuesday in a South Korean hospital as new details emerged from his brazen dash for freedom across the demilitarized zone.
The escape across one of the world's most closely patrolled borders — the first such military defection in a decade — has riveted the region with elements that read like a movie script. Among its dramatic details: The soldier was shot five times by his countrymen as he ran south Monday.
The daring dash occurred in one of the few spots that such an attempt is possible: the Joint Security Area in the truce village of Panmunjom, the only part of the heavily fortified DMZ where North and South Koreans face each other.
The soldier drove a jeep toward a guard post in the Joint Security Area just after 3 p.m. Monday, said Col. Roh Jae-cheon, a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the vehicle got stuck in a ditch. The soldier, who was wearing a Korean People’s Army uniform but not carrying a weapon, jumped out and ran toward the demarcation line that runs through the DMZ.
Four North Korean soldiers chased him, firing at least 40 rounds, some from an AK-47 assault rifle, officials said Tuesday after reviewing security-camera footage from the border.
Five bullets smashed into the escaping soldier, hitting his shoulder, stomach and elbow, but he still made it 50 yards over the dividing line and took cover behind a building on the southern side. Almost 20 minutes later, a South Korean soldier was able to crawl to the site and drag him to safety.
The injured man was airlifted to a hospital south of Seoul, where he was operated on by one of the South’s best trauma surgeons. He was unconscious and in critical condition on Tuesday, the surgeon in charge of the soldier’s treatment, Lee Cook-jong, told reporters.
“We will have to ride out some crucial moments over the next 10 days,” Lee said. More surgeries were expected in the coming days.
The soldier suffered a serious gunshot wound to his stomach that affected seven internal organs.
Although there have been a handful of defections across the DMZ in recent years, escapes through the tense Joint Security Area are rare. The last time a North Korean soldier defected through the area was in 2007 and, before that, in 1998.
But this incident marked the first time since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953 that shots have been fired through the Joint Security Area, Defense Minister Song Young-moo told lawmakers in Seoul on Tuesday. South Korean soldiers did not return fire.
If North Korea is proved to have fired shots through the area, that would constitute a breach of the armistice agreement.
The United Nations Command, which is run by the U.S. military and oversees the Joint Security Area, said it was investigating the incident.
The area is a popular place for tourists and visiting officials, not least because once inside the squat, blue-painted meeting buildings that straddle the border, visitors can technically cross the line, although soldiers guard the doors out to the other side. However, by good fortune, the incident happened on a Monday, when tours do not run.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was photographed by North Korean soldiers while he stood inside one of the buildings during a visit to the DMZ in March.
Vice President Pence visited the area in September, warning Pyongyang not to test the "strength and resolve" of the United States.
President Trump attempted to visit the DMZ during his visit to South Korea last week, although it was not clear if he was heading to the Joint Security Area. His helicopter had to turn back because of bad weather.