A North Korean soldier defected through the Demilitarized Zone, which is guarded by minefields and guard posts, as well as tall fences topped with barbed wire, some of them electrified.

Share story

SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Monday, walking across the countries’ shared border, which is so heavily guarded that only a few refugees from North Korea have managed to cross it in recent years, South Korean officials said.

The soldier, in his late teens, presented himself at a South Korean guard post inside the southern half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone that separates the rival countries, said a Defense Ministry spokesman, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity. North Korean soldiers usually serve for 10 years, starting from age 17.

The soldier defected through the border near Hwacheon, a South Korean town northeast of Seoul, the capital, the spokesman said.

“It did not trigger an exchange of fire between the two sides,” the spokesman said. “We are currently debriefing him to find out such details as his rank and motive for defection.”

More than 28,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since a widespread famine hit their isolated and impoverished country in the late 1990s. Nearly all of them traveled through China. But a handful of North Koreans have also defected through the Demilitarized Zone, which is guarded by minefields and guard posts, as well as tall fences topped with barbed wire, some of them electrified.

The soldier was the first North Korean serviceman to defect to the South since another North Korean soldier scaled three barbed-wire fences and knocked on doors of the barracks of South Korean border guards in 2012.

Last year, two North Korean men, both civilians, swam to a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed sea border off the west coast.

Since he took power in late 2011, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tightened patrols on his country’s border with China in an attempt to turn off the steady stream of outbound refugees.

The number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea plummeted to 1,397 last year from 2,706 in 2011. In the first five months of this year, 535 North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea, according to the Unification Ministry of South Korea.