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DMZ defector relates ordeal to U.S. broadcaster

Apr 17,2019
The soldier who defected from North Korea in a hail of bullets at the demilitarized zone in November 2017 opened up to U.S. broadcaster NBC on Tuesday to recount the circumstances behind his dramatic escape.

On camera, Oh Chong-song, 27, looked like any other South Korean man in his twenties, clad in a denim jacket and sneakers and sporting a haircut commonly seen in Seoul.

His story, however, was anything but ordinary - even by the standards of his fellow defectors. Oh fled across the border on foot in the truce village of Panmunjom and was riddled with bullets fired by his fellow North Korean soldiers.

A 7-minute surveillance clip from that day - Nov. 12, 2017 - released later that month showed how dramatic that escape was. Oh, who later testified he was a guard at a rear post in Panmunjom, was seen speeding in a military jeep across a concrete bridge that links North Korea to its side of the Joint Security Area (JSA).

Ramming through a military checkpoint, Private Oh made it inside the JSA, the jointly patrolled section of the DMZ, but his vehicle hit a ditch. He leapt out and ran through trees across the military demarcation line (MDL) to the South Korean side while nearby North Korean troops frantically chased him, firing guns.

“I was extremely terrified,” Oh told the interviewer about his escape. “I watch this video once in a while and every time I see it, I realize the fact that I am alive is a miracle. Even I can’t believe something like this happened ... I can’t believe it’s me in the video.”

Lying wounded just meters across the MDL on the South’s side, Oh was rescued minutes later by South Korean soldiers, who evacuated him by a UN Command helicopter to a hospital in Suwon, Gyeonggi.

There, renowned trauma surgeon Dr. Lee Guk-jong and a team of doctors successfully operated on his five bullet wounds. They later called his recovery a “miracle.” They also found parasitic worms in his body, some measuring as long as 11 inches, which testified to the dismal food situation in the North, even among relatively privileged soldiers.

Oh showed NBC’s interviewer the parts of his body that bullets tore through, saying that despite feeling the “warmth of the blood flowing” he still ran.

He added that he did not blame his former comrades for shooting at him, saying if he was in their situation, he would have done the same. “It’s not a matter of friendship,” he said.

As to the reasons behind his flight from the North, a matter which fueled much speculation by the South Korean press, Oh said his decision was spontaneous, since even that morning, he “had no thought of going to the South.”

A South Korean intelligence officer at the time told the press that Oh had caused an automobile accident while under the influence of alcohol in the North and had impulsively opted to escape in fear of punishment. Oh himself told the Japanese outlet Sankei News in November that he had gotten into a fight with a friend and fled across the border after drinking alcohol, believing that he would be executed if caught by the North’s authorities.

Oh’s escape and the ensuing gunfire at the time inflamed tensions at a time when inter-Korean relations were at a low in the wake of Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017. The UN Command, which oversees the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, even accused the North of violating the armistice agreement by engaging in hostile acts inside the JSA, and firing towards the South Korean side. The South’s troops did not fire back.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]