A North Korean soldier defected across the Demilitarized Zone on Thursday morning, crossing safely into South Korea before a skirmish erupted involving troops from both sides, military officials in Seoul said.
About an hour after South Korean soldiers spotted the defector and escorted him to safety, they noticed approaching North Koreans troops. The South Koreans fired about 20 warning shots in their direction, ending the confrontation.
Defense officials said they were investigating whether the North Koreans committed an incursion across the border — a miles-wide buffer to prevent confrontations — during their patrol, presumably in search of the defector. Such an act would be considered a "provocation," the officials said.
It was the fourth time in 2017 that a North Korean soldier has crossed the highly fortified border to defect. The most-high profile incident occurred last month when a soldier sped into the Joint Security Area, one of the most highly watched and sensitive sections along the 150-mile, sparsely populated buffer zone between the two countries.
In that case, captured on many video cameras stationed at the border, North Korean soldiers chased him on foot, shooting their fleeing countryman at least four times before he collapsed in safe territory. United States and South Korean forces later rescued the soldier, who is recovering from his wounds and severe malnutrition.
That incident prompted South Korean officials to begin playing propaganda messages along the border announcing the defector's safe crossing and poor health. The speakers are capable of projecting messages for miles, presumably within earshot of other front-line North Korean border guards.
Thursday's incident began about 8 a.m. in the DMZ, in a central area east of the Joint Security Area. The South Korean soldiers soon noticed the defector, who was armed with an automatic rifle but not making threatening moves, defense officials said. Other defectors have waved white flags or simply shouted out their intentions.
When North Korean troops moved into the area, the South Koreans fired in their direction, apparently defusing the situation. South Korean officials said no one was believed to be injured on either side, and the defector was being questioned by South Korean authorities.
U.S. Forces Korea issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying that commanders were aware of the incident in the "midwestern front" of the DMZ. "We are coordinating with the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff to determine the circumstances surrounding the defection," the statement said. South Korea is officially known as the Republic of Korea.
The incident comes at a tense time on the Korean peninsula, with South Korea preparing to host the Winter Olympics and North Korea under immense international pressure to halt its development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.
The North Korean government had for months refrained from any tests that are banned by United Nations resolutions, leading some to speculate that tensions might cool. Others suspected that the lull was more seasonal than strategic.
Then, in late November, North Korea launched what it described as a national triumph — an intercontinental ballistic missile that soared well above the International Space Station, some 2,800 miles, falling into the East Sea 600 miles away.
In theory, missile experts say, the missile is capable of reaching Washington, D.C. The international community and the Trump administration are still grappling with how to craft a long-term solution to denuclearize the government in Pyongyang.
Stiles is a special correspondent.
10:55 p.m.: The story was updated with additional background and details on the defection of the North Korean soldier.