A North Korean soldier crossed over the heavily-armed border separating the two Koreas just before midnight on Oct. 2, managing to pass through a South Korean guard post over a barbed wire fence and walk up to a observation post completely unnoticed. Sentries both at the guard post near the border and at the observation post further down south were totally unaware of the soldier as he walked for more than 4 km.
He was only apprehended when a security camera picked him up standing in front of the observation post of a military base in the demilitarized zone. If he had been a saboteur rather than a defector, the incident could have led to a horrific ending. The military tried to hide the incident until it was revealed in a National Assembly audit on Monday.
Last month, another North Korean defector secretly entered Gangwha Island just off the west coast of South Korea and hid there for six days. He was finally discovered by local residents, who reported him to the authorities, but the troops on the island were unaware of any signs of infiltration along a fence set up to keep North Korean infiltrators out.
The defector managed to sneak through a point along the fence that had been destroyed by a typhoon and temporarily replaced with rocks. He dug through the rocks and covered his tracks. He survived by stealing food from houses there and even managed to get drunk.
If military discipline is this lax, then the safety not only of troops but of the country is at risk. It cannot be taken lightly that the military base the soldier defected to was even on heightened alert at the time following a reported sighting of a North Korean submarine off the coast of Gangneung.
The problem cannot be solved with routine follow-up inspections and punishment of the senior officers in command. Soldiers can become careless when they have to sit in guard posts for months at a time. The current system of rotating soldiers on guard duty is susceptible to lapses especially during changes in shifts.
One Army division was able to reduce the number of troops on border guard duty by 40 percent yet boost monitoring capacity, simply by setting up long- and short-range surveillance cameras on major points on the barbed-wire perimeter along the border and installing sensors that detect suspicious movements in the area. But the military estimates this would cost W170 billion (US$1=W1,111) to set up all along the 250 km border.
The government needs to consider whether that is not a very good investment. In the meantime, soldiers guarding the border simply have to be more alert.