More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since a famine killed at least a million people in the North in the 1990s. The country has recently been the subject of a tightening grip of sanctions that have curbed exports that provide urgently needed revenue, and it has been struggling with the impact of a drought that has reduced agricultural yields.
But it is extremely rare for people to flee across the demilitarized zone. The 2.5-mile-wide DMZ, considered the most heavily fortified border in the world, is guarded by minefields, sentry posts and tall fences topped with barbed wire, some electrified.
The soldier’s defection to South Korea on Thursday was the fourth this year, and the gunfire over the episode is certain to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula just as hopes have grown for a thaw in relations between the South and North.
South Korean officials have recently held out the possibility that they might be willing to push back the timing of planned joint military exercises with the United States to reduce tensions.
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Those exercises have traditionally drawn a fierce response from North Korea, which sees them as a preparation for military action against the North.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, told NBC News that he was open to curtailing the exercises ahead of next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.
“It is possible for South Korea and the U.S. to review the possibility of postponing the exercises,” he said. “I’ve made such a suggestion to the U.S., and the U.S. is currently reviewing it. However, all this depends on how North Korea behaves.”
China and Russia have proposed a “freeze for freeze” agreement in which North Korea would halt its nuclear and missile tests in return for a halt to the military exercises.
But on Wednesday, the Pentagon distanced itself from Mr. Moon’s suggestion about delaying the exercises.
“The United States and our allies and partners in the region have long conducted routine exercises to maintain readiness,” Lt. Col. Chris Logan, a Defense Department spokesman, told Yonhap. “But it would be inappropriate to discuss plans for future exercises at this time.”
In a possible sign of worsening conditions in the North, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that 15 North Koreans, including the four soldiers, had fled directly to South Korea this year, compared with five people, including one soldier, last year. Most defectors avoid such a perilous crossing to the South, instead fleeing through China.