US & World

North Korean Former Gymnast Fled To South Korea By Jumping Fence

A North Korean man defected to South Korea by hopping a fence along the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries.
A North Korean man defected to South Korea by hopping a fence along the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries.
ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

A North Korean man seeking to escape his homeland took a nearly 10-foot leap of faith earlier this month. The jump, which occurred under — or more accurately over -- the noses of soldiers, brought him to safety in South Korea, where he told troops he wanted to defect.

It's no surprise that the man claims he is a former gymnast.

The unnamed man, who is described as being in his late 20s, crossed into South Korea through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at around 7 p.m. Nov. 3, evading capture for 14 hours. He was found by South Korean soldiers at around 10 a.m. the next day less than a mile away from the border, according to The Korean Herald and Yonhap News Agency.

South Korean officials questioned the man's story, as well as his motives for crossing the border. To prove he was capable of hopping the fence, officials had him jump twice in their presence, according to The Korea Herald. The man is still under investigation by South Korean officials, the newspaper said.

If the man's story is accurate, it's all the more remarkable because he managed to avoid detection by North Korean troops, evade landmines that litter the DMZ, and not trigger sensors on the surrounding fences.

Authorities believe his light weight and gymnastics experience lend credibility to his story and likely aided in his escape. The military previously said the fences the man crossed appeared pressed down, but had no evidence of being cut or otherwise modified, the newspaper said.

The man's escape has prompted criticism of South Korea's military and security systems around the DMZ and why it took so long for troops to locate him.

"We will look into why the sensors did not ring and make sure they operate properly," an official for the Joint Chiefs of Staff for Korea told Yonhap.

Seoul previously vowed to strengthen surveillance along the border with their communist neighbor following other security breaches, the news agency said. In June 2019, a boat carrying four North Koreans arrived in the town of Samcheok in South Korea without being detected.

The last known North Korean defection took place in August 2019, when a soldier crossed the DMZ. A dramatic escape by another North Korean soldier grabbed headlines around the world in 2017, when he drove an army truck through the border amid a hail of gunfire from his fellow soldiers.

South Korea's Ministry of Unification says a total of 33,523 North Korean defectors have entered South Korea since 1948, which was the start of the official division between the two countries.

The North and South agreed to cease hostilities from the Korean War in 1953, but have remained mutually hostile. Relations have soured further since the collapse of denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington last year.

In September, North Korean troops shot to death a South Korean fisheries official who mistakenly drifted into the North's territorial waters. North Korean blamed Seoul, saying the killing was due to their "improper control" of a citizen.

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