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 blitz 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 scene from a movie, including the soldier being shot five times by his countrymen as he ran south on Monday.
It 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 Koreans 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. on Monday, said Col. Roh Jae-cheon, a spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the wheels of the car got stuck in a ditch. The soldier, wearing a North Korean People's Army uniform but was not carrying a weapon, jumped out of the vehicle and ran toward the demarcation line that runs through the DMZ.
Four North Korean soldiers chased after him, firing at least 40 rounds, including some with an AK-47 assault rifle, officials said Tuesday after reviewing security camera footage from the border.
The man made it 50 yards over the dividing line and took cover behind a building on the southern side of the line that separates the two Koreas. Almost 20 minutes later, a southern 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 coming days.
The soldier suffered gunshot wounds to his shoulder and elbow, as well as a serious wound to his stomach. Seven of his internal organs were affected by the wounds.
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 there was in 2007 and, before that, in 1998.
But this incident marks 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 proven to have fired shots through the area, this would constitute a breach of the armistice agreement.
The United Nations Command, which is run by the United States military and oversees the Joint Security Area, said that it was investigating the incident.
The area is a popular place for tourists and visiting officials, not least because once inside the blue meeting huts 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.
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, was photographed by North Korean soldiers while he stood inside one of the huts during a visit to the DMZ in March.
Vice President Mike Pence visited the area in September, warning Pyongyang not to test the United States' "strength and resolve."