SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s military apologized Wednesday for causing public concern about its security readiness, days after it failed to stop a suspected North Korean defector who crossed the heavily fortified border to return to the North.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff said South Korean surveillance cameras detected the person scaling a barbed-wire fence at the border on Saturday, triggering alarms and prompting a team of six soldiers to move to the area.
But the troops failed to find any trace of the person, Lt. Gen. Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers. He said officials checked the recorded video from the surveillance cameras but were unable to find the person immediately because the time in the video was incorrectly set.
A thermal observation device later spotted the person again, but officers initially thought it was a North Korean trying to defect to South Korea, rather than one returning to the North. The officers later revised their assessment and again dispatched troops, who failed to catch the person before her or she entered North Korean territory, Jeon said.
Jeon said the military will boost the readiness of front-line troops and upgrade surveillance systems along the border.
"I am really sorry for causing concerns to the people because of this incident,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Won In-choul, told the lawmakers. “I promise to make every effort so there is no recurrence of similar incidents.”
President Moon Jae-in called the incident a “grave” failure in surveillance that the military must not repeat. He ordered a special inspection of the military’s overall security posture, according to his spokesperson, Park Kyung-mee.
The Defense Ministry said the person who crossed the border is likely a defector who had walked across the frontier in the other direction in late 2020 to settle in South Korea. Ministry officials said the appearance of the person in the security video matches that defector.
After arriving in South Korea, the defector identified himself as a former gymnast and said he crawled over border fences before being found by South Korean troops, ministry officials said.
Defecting via the 248-kilometer (155-mile) -long, 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) -wide border, known as the Demilitarized Zone, is rare since it is guarded by land mines, tank traps and combat troops on both sides in addition to barbed-wire fences. South Korea’s military has come under massive public criticism whenever someone is able to cross the border undetected.
The fate of the person who crossed into North Korea on Saturday is unknown. The Defense Ministry said North Korea hasn’t responded to its request that the person’s safety be assured.
While in South Korea, the defector struggled to adjust to his new life, complained to people around him and told them about his desire to return to North Korea, said Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-scholar in Seoul.
Ahn, citing unidentified friends of the man, said he worked for a small janitorial service but was bullied by colleagues and lived alone at a government-provided apartment in Seoul. He said the defector had fled to South Korea after suffering abuses from his stepfather in North Korea.
About 34,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea in search of better lives since the late 1990s, and about 30 have returned home in the past 10 years, according to South Korean government records.
Observers say the returnees likely suffered cultural shock and discrimination, had large debts or were blackmailed by North Korean agents who threatened to harm their loved ones if they didn’t return.