April 05, 2013 10:26
A North Korean defector stole a fishing boat on Yeonpyeong Island on Wednesday night and returned to the North across the West Sea.
The incident occurred even as the South Korean military was supposedly on heightened alert due to increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the North and in the wake of similar other incidents highlighting lax border security.
North Korea was apparently unaware for more than an hour that the fishing boat had crossed over the de facto maritime border.
According to the Defense Ministry, the defector stole a nine-ton fishing boat on Yeonpyeong Island at around 10:49 p.m. and headed for the Northern Limit Line -- a distance about 5.5 km.
The man, who was identified by his surname Lee, had fled the North in March 2007 and made his way to the South. He found a job on the island late last month as a crab fisherman.
Lee scoured Yeonpyeong port that night and found a fishing boat with the key stuck in the ignition, which is apparently common practice among local fishermen. Military authorities prohibit crab fishing at night, and a Marine sentry stationed at the port spotted the boat leaving the dock and informed his senior officers at around 10:31 p.m. But they did nothing.
"It is common during the crab-fishing season for boats to anchor near the seawall. The unit in charge of the area apparently thought this was the case that night," a Defense Ministry official said.
The Marines and Navy operate radar installations on Yeonpyeong Island. At around 10:46 p.m., three minutes before Lee crossed over the NLL, military authorities on the island said they saw a fishing boat around 900 m south of the maritime border. The Navy immediately dispatched patrol vessels, but the fishing boat had already crossed into North Korean waters.
The military has recently raised the alert level by a notch, and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises were taking place even as the incident occurred. The Marines and Navy claim they have also increased surveillance around Yeonpyeong Island.
North Korea, which also claims to have raised its military alert to the highest level, failed to detect the approaching boat. "There were no movements by North Korean patrol boats even an hour after the fishing boat crossed over the NLL," said an informed source. "To my knowledge, even the North Korean military was surprised."
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