On November 13 an event occurred in Korea that soon shocked a lot of people on both sides of the DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) that has divided the country since 1953. At the JSA (Joint Security Area) on the DMZ a North Korean soldier escaped into South Korea despite being shot five times by four other North Koreans pursuing him into South Korea. The wounded North Korean was rushed to a hospital and after two operations and several days of uncertainty South Korean doctors announced that the soldier would live, although he did not regain consciousness until the 21st. By then the list of surprises was already growing. First there was the fact that one of elite of the North Korean military would suddenly make a break for freedom at such a heavily guarded part of the DMZ was astonishing. Another quickly noted surprise was the fact that at least one of his pursuers was firing an assault rifle. The agreement that established the JSA specified that none of the 30-40 soldiers on each side of the JSA DMZ would be armed with anything but pistols.
It wasn’t surprising that the North Korean soldier survived, for they are known to be tough and resilient. But what was surprising was what the two operations on him revealed. By any standard the soldier was a very sick man even before he fled. Yes, he was tough, as most North Koreans must be just to survive. But because South Korea is a democracy with a free press details of what afflictions the soldier suffered from soon became news, especially the number of intestinal parasites he had, including one South Korean doctors said they had never seen before.
The physical condition of North Koreans was no mystery to the South Korean medical and intelligence community because there are currently about 30,000 North Koreans living in South Korea (or who got to South Korea and became South Korean citizens). These escapees (or “defectors”) are mostly recent (since the 1990s) arrivals and they are thoroughly examined (physically and otherwise) to check for medical problems (which South Korea can usually deal with) and loyalty (North Korea continues trying to insert spies via the defector program). So it was known that the health of North Koreans had been getting worse since the 1990s. There had also been several North Korean soldiers who escaped across the DMZ, usually in embarrassing incidents where these defectors simply walked across at night unnoticed and sometimes announced their presence by knocking on the door of a South Korean border post and asking to defect. But these were regular army or border guard troops, not members of elite security forces.
The JSA defector was different in that he passed out from his wounds soon after reaching the south and being retrieved by South Korean troops. When he awoke on the 21st his first reaction was paranoid. He thought he was still in North Korea but part of a North Korean hoax where a replica of a South Korean hospital was being used, along with North Korean agents trained to act (and talk) like South Koreans to get him to truthfully answer questions about how he planned his escape effort and with whom. Some South Korea experts (on the psychology of North Korea defectors) warned that this was a possibility and the South Korean were able to reassure their patient that he was safe. But that they did want to ask him some questions, which the defector was eager to answer.
The South Korean medical community had another surprise; they were woefully ill-prepared to treat a large number of combat casualties. In part that’s because South Korea is a very safe (especially compared to North Korea) country with few gunshot wounds and few civilian or military medical personnel with much experience in dealing with the multiple wounds common with combat casualties. The South Korean military was aware of this as South Korea had long exchanged military intelligence and experience with their American allies and the South Korean military had adopted many of the most recent “emergency medicine” tools and techniques the Americans have developed to handle their thousands of combat casualties since 2001. But this was kept quiet in South Korea, where the military is well armed and equipped in similar fashion to their American allies. But the South Koreans simply do not have a large number of surgeons and emergency medical personnel to handle a lot of casualties in a short period. There really was no easy solution and these potential problems with treating massive numbers of combat casualties was generally not discussed openly in South Korea. Now it is, for a while at least.
In fact, South Koreans don’t like to discuss details of what mental and physical shape North Koreans are in nor the impact of a war with North Korea. Because of this one highly visible defection much of what was known about North Korea in the south became highly visible, including a lot of unpleasant truths, like the poor physical condition of North Koreans and the severe psychological damage living in North Korea can inflict.
Meanwhile there is the fact that the latest defection happened in the least likely of places. That’s because both Koreas try to present the most impressive display at the JSA, which can be freely photographed. The JSA is the only place on the DMZ where soldiers from north and south face each other up close on a daily basis and there are plenty of photos available about what troops from both sides looked like over the decades. The JSA is where occasional meeting are held and marks the spot where the July 1953 armistice was signed. The DMZ is 243 kilometers long and four kilometers wide. No people are allowed inside most of the DMZ. North Korea has been particularly careful selecting troops to serve in the JSA because it is so easy to defect. The November 13 case involved one of these soldiers, who sought to drive a North Korean jeep into South Korea. The jeep hit an obstacle and a wheel came off, forcing the soldier to sprint the rest of the way while other North Koreas opened fire, getting off about 40 rounds (mostly from pistols) before the defector was about 50 meters into South Korea and ducked behind some cover. He then passed out and was quickly moved out of the area by South Korean troops. Over the next week North Korean troops were seen constructing more obstacles (trenches, fences) to hinder any similar escape attempts in the JSA.
Meanwhile the media impact of this latest defection publicized what had been going on among the many North Korean already living in South Korea. This includes North Korean efforts to persuade defectors to return to North Korea. Cooperation from the Chinese police has made it possible for North Korean agents to identify and kidnap North Koreans who had reached South Korea, become South Korean citizens and returned to visit friends of or family in northeast China. Once kidnapped these South Koreans are taken back to North Korea. Normally this is a death sentence for the returnee but in this case the North Korean secret police often offer the kidnapped defector an option. If they pretend they returned voluntarily they will not be punished. In other cases Chinese police are bribed to aid and ignore North Korean agents seeking to terrorize, or even murder, locals (usually ethnic Koreans who are Chinese citizens or foreigners legally in China) who support North Korean defectors.
Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 at least 25 North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea have returned to North Korea. Such defectors can easily do so since once they establish legal residency in South Korea they are free to go anywhere they want to, except North Korea. It is illegal for South Koreans to visit North Korea without government permission. South Korea doesn’t track the movement of these former North Koreans once they have been accepted but because of fears about kidnappings and North Korea using defectors as spies South Korea is now seeking to locate some 900 North Koreans now residents of South Korea that cannot be located. Most may have simply moved to other countries, which a growing number do. But South Korea suspects something more sinister. While North Korea has deliberately sent trained spies to South Korea pretending to be refugees (several have been caught or defected) it is known that North Korea has been more successful in using threats against family members of defectors who are still in North Korea as a way to get North Koreans in South Korea to become spies or return to the north. It is not yet known what family, if any, the latest defector has. So far he is only identified as a 24 year old whose family name is Oh. Doctors and nurses treating mister Oh report that once he realized he really had made it to South Korea he expressed gratitude, and a sense of humor. He already knew quite a lot about South Korea but had never been able to visit before and was eager to get out and experience more of it.
Meanwhile the North Korean defector return program makes it difficult for mister Oh to visit any area where North Korean agents may be active. Not just northeast China but in any country where North Korea has an embassy or commercial activity. North Korea has tried to keep these defector kidnappings secret but it is apparently a high priority for leader Kim Jong Un. In large part that is because 2016 was a record year for the number of North Koreans getting to South Korea. In 2016 1,414 North Koreans made it, which was 11 percent more than the 1,275 in 2015. That meant the number of North Koreans who made it to the south since 1953 reached 30,308. It was widely predicted that the 30,000 mark would be reached by the end of 2016 and it was. Most of those who have gotten out of the north to the south have done so since the late 1990s. The growing number of escapes was another side effect of the markets the North Korean government has forced to legalize since 2000. This greatly expanded the illegal black market that had been around for decades. It meant that many poor families suddenly had lots of money (by North Korean standards), which enabled them to hire people smugglers, buy boats or bribe border guards. For a long time most escapees stayed in northeast China but eventually the people smugglers established reliable, if expensive, escape routes to South Korea for the growing number of North Korean escapees who could afford it. China had long been a dangerous (for illegal Korean migrants) and less prosperous place than South Korea because China periodically cooperated with North Korea to identify, arrest and send back North Korean illegally in China. This was often a death sentence for those sent back.
Since 2014 China has eased up on its persecution of illegals from North Korea and in 2016 was openly allowing some of them to legally cross Chinese borders to reach South Korea via Southeast Asia. This trend so alarmed North Korea that Kim Jong Un began dismissing military personnel (including officers) if they had any family members who had defected. This was because it was suspected (but apparently unproven) that these soldiers might have heard from their defector kin about life in South Korea and passed that on. It was obvious to the government that a lot of news about North Korean defectors living (usually quite well) in South Korea was getting back to the north and the reason was the use of illegal cell phones and smugglers who got cash and sometimes thumb drives with video from the defectors or just South Korean movies and TV shows.
The defectors are becoming an increasingly dangerous threat for the North Korean government, something that became obvious as more and more North Koreans reached the south where they could speak freely. Only about 500 North Koreans a year were reaching South Korea in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s, after the economic collapse up north and a famine that killed 5-10 percent of the population, the number began to rapidly increase. By 2009 it was nearly 3,000 a year. When Kim Jong Un took over in late 2011 he cracked down hard on this illegal migration and reduced it to about 1,200 a year by 2015. But that trend has apparently reversed. There was another change, now most of the North Koreans arriving in South Korea are women. In the late 1990s less than ten percent of those reaching South Korea were women. Since then this has grown to the point where 80 percent of the arrivals are women. There are several reasons for this. Women are more adaptable and have an easier time finding a spouse in South Korea. For the North Korean men, South Korean society is actually quite hostile. Moreover, men are more closely watched in North Korea.
North Korea tried to keep news of their latest defector from its people but that proved impossible, especially for North Koreans living within twenty kilometers of the DMZ. Most of the North Korea army is stationed along the DMZ and they, along with North Korea civilians listen for the news that is now broadcast to them from South Korea via loudspeakers. In August 2015 South Korea resumed news broadcasts from large speakers on their side of the DMZ. North Korea tried to shut this down and failed. It all began with a 2004 agreement in which sides agreed to halt the use of loudspeakers on the DMZ as well as attacks on each other. These attacks are almost all North Korean operations but the north was willing to make this deal in return for some desperately needed economic aid. According to the south the north officially broke this deal in 2010 with two very public military attacks on the south. As a result eleven new loudspeaker systems were installed on the DMZ but were not turned on until 2015. A week later the north resumed using loudspeakers on their side of the border, but these were mainly to try and cancel out the message (uncensored news, South Korean pop music and such) coming from the south. The northern broadcasts features praise for North Korean leaders and the superior lifestyle of the north. The South Korean speakers are more powerful and have longer range. Better South Korean tech and all that. Worse, several months ago South Korea revealed that it had discovered the loudspeaker broadcasts had been having quite an impact on North Korean soldiers. Whether this played a role in the latest defector incident is unclear but South Koreans (usually soldiers) along the DMZ have noted that any visible North Koreans tend to perk up when the South Korea loudspeaker newscasts begin.
On November 29th North Korea tried a different distraction; another ICBM test launch. This was successful and featured a new ICBM design, one similar to the American Cold War era Atlas (the last U.S. liquid fueled ICBM). North Korea said this new missile could reach all of the United States and that is true if it has a guidance system capable of handling that. But this missile test, the first in two months, did not generate offers of surrender from South Korea, America and Japan but instead counter-threats. China expressed disappoint with North Korea. That is a traditional Chinese way of threatening retribution.
As glad as South Koreans are to see another North Korean defector, especially one who escaped in such a dramatic (and caught on video) fashion, the physical condition of the defector reminded South Korea of what it would cost them if the two Koreas were united once more. When South Koreans studied the experience of East and West Germany reuniting it was clear that the huge financial cost was accompanied by the inability of many older East Germans to get comfortable living in a more comfortable democracy. This culture shock and ability to adjust to freedom was largely a generational thing. Those who were teenagers and younger when unification occurred could easily adapt but the older ones, who had grown up in communist East Germany, never fully adapted to life in a free market democracy. Unfortunately for South Korea, most of the northern refugees are not kids, but adults who have been conditioned to live in a police state and have chronic difficultly adapting. But younger North Koreans will continue trying, and succeeding to get out and report on the state of affairs in the north. Meanwhile the DMZ loudspeakers and other modern technology is allowing accurate news to reach North Korea and nothing seems capable of stopping the signal.