12.03.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Miracles of Sloppiness, or Another Ode to “Locked Borders”


On the morning of February 16, 2021, a “suspicious man” was detained near a military checkpoint on the eastern segment of the inter-Korean border. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces of Korea, the intruder was detected by a video surveillance camera. He was moving south near a military checkpoint located inside the restricted area north of the civilian control line about 5-20 kilometers south of the DMZ, in the eastern coastal border town of Koson. The search lasted three hours, and at 7:20 a.m. the man was taken into custody.

This story immediately drew attention, especially since just recently, in November 2020, a defector crossed the border unhindered in the same area due to faulty sensors installed on fences and other passages.

Details surfaced the next day: while the November intruder was a gymnast, this time the border was crossed by a diver in a wetsuit, allowing him to swim about 10 km in cold weather, and he managed to crawl under the wire barriers along the beach, through the drainage canal. Although critics pointed to the unfavorable weather conditions that day (high sea and water temperature of 8 degrees Celsius), the man wore several layers of clothing under his wetsuit and is “believed to be familiar with ocean circumstances”.

Once again, the security cameras recorded the intruder several times, but no immediate action was taken to apprehend him. The military only responded when he came into view on civilian line-of-sight video cameras.

The drainage tunnel was not equipped with intrusion protection, although the military had previously claimed to have overhauled drainage canals in the border areas after another North Korean defector named Kim returned home in July 2020 using one of the canals on Ganghwa Island.

This is the high-profile story when a suspected rape fugitive returned home to the border town of Kaesong with possible symptoms of the coronavirus, causing the entire town to be put on lockdown. But what is important here is that the military failed to notice and prevent the return of the defector, learning of the incident only from the state media of the North. However, Kim was spotted seven times during his escape: five times on surveillance cameras and twice on thermal imaging cameras, but he “could not be identified as someone trying to cross the border”. The guard, for example, saw the cab with Kim arrive at the border, but took no action because he thought of the passenger as a local.

And that’s not all: in October 2012, this same unit was involved when soldiers were unaware that a North Korean defector had crossed the border until he came knocking on their barracks door.

Recall also the 2019 incident in which a North Korean wooden boat crossed the maritime border and arrived at Samcheok port in Gangwon Province, 130 kilometers south of the Northern Border Line (NBL), without being detected by the military. And in 2020, a South Korean vessel crossed the boundary of the fishing zone, which runs about 18 km south of the Northern Border Line, the actual maritime border between the South and the North. The incident should have immediately drawn the attention of the marine police. It did not. The military spotted the vessel on its radar but took no action to bring it back.

In general, as independent deputy Yoon Sang-hyun wrote on the matter in his Facebook, “If it was an armed invasion by North Korean special forces soldiers, we would have fallen into uncontrollable turmoil. <…> in other words, it was a prime example of a hole in our defenses”.

Defense Minister Suh Wook apologized for the failure and promised to take measures to prevent similar incidents from happening again. According to the minister, the cause of the incident was the incorrect distribution of forces protecting the border with North Korea in this area, as well as shortcomings in their coordination and management. And this is despite the fact that the ROK Armed Forces have recently equipped the inter-Korean border with a new technological control system. Thus, once again, the “human factor” played a key role.

Similar statements were made by some experts: Seoul relies too much on monitoring technology rather than people.

Meanwhile, there are unpleasant details surfacing. Turns out the intruder was caught on camera at least four times after he swam ashore, but the border guards did nothing to stop him.

Formally, if a moving object is caught on the surveillance camera, the system sends an alarm to the unit guarding the area, after which the information goes upstairs, and the rapid response group is moved to the place. But the unit in charge of the area did nothing. The soldiers told investigators that they were awake at the time, and it is unclear why they did not notice the alarm, or if they did, why they took no action. Maybe “the siren had just been turned off”? No, the soldier in charge of monitoring the equipment treated the warnings as system errors.

Then, at first, the unit guarding the east coast was suspected of falsely reporting that all drainage channels had been checked.  But it turned out that the military did not even know about this unprotected drainage canal.  Apparently, the drainage pipe through which the intruder passed was one of three that were excluded from the list of facilities to be supervised. It is reported that the pipe is barely visible, but that cannot be an excuse.

The Department of National Defense promised to punish those responsible for the violation, tighten discipline, and upgrade the surveillance system along the border. The main object of punishment is the 22nd RK Infantry Division, which is responsible for this section. On March 4, the ROK Ministry of Defense reported that the two-star general, commander of the 22nd Infantry Division, was relieved of his duty for his subordinates’ failure to respond in time to a border violation.  According to a ministry spokesman, “the division commander has a direct responsibility over the poor maritime security and counterinfiltration operations, and is also accountable for negligently overseeing the management of drainage conduits”.

Disciplinary action is also expected to be taken against other senior officers. Five officers, including the commander, will be referred to a disciplinary committee, and 18 others involved in the incident will be referred to Ground Operations Command for review. The commander of the Eighth Infantry Army, which includes the 22nd Infantry Division, will receive a stern warning.

This, incidentally, is the second general to be fired for this kind of issue.  On July 31, 2020, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided to relieve a Marine general of command due to the failure at Ganghwa mentioned above.

The media took it skeptically, pointing out that “beefing up security is easier said than done. What’s important is that a series of problems that had previously occurred were yet again repeated. With renewed vigor and determination, the military should come up with realistic and effective measures that can prevent any recurrence of such security lapses“.

But from the point of view of conservatives, Moon Jae-in is to blame for the “alarmingly poor discipline of the South Korean armed forces,” which significantly reduces combat readiness. He is also blamed for the political course of reconciliation with North Korea, the agreement signed by the two Koreas in September 2018 under which the two sides decided not to take any hostile action against each other (“while North Korea continued to modernize its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities”), and the decision to reduce the mandatory service to 18 months from 21 months amid a reduction in conscription stretched the military’s deployment capabilities too far. In other words, “We hope our military will wake up and think about its raison d’être before it’s too late”.

So it seems like the border isn’t really that shut, as we once and once again see a strange story with a set of near-fiction elements. After all, neither the notional gymnast nor the notional diver has been in the media in any way, even though in both cases conservatives could make a nice story about “escaping to freedom through the Berlin Wall”. It seems to be a matter of routine army sloppiness, which is only due to internal reasons.

Moon’s fault, if there is one, is not that he breaks up the army to please the North, but rather turns a blind eye to the army’s problems so as not to quarrel with the military as a caste. Their desires like the aircraft carrier are safely satisfied, and military expenditures grow higher. On the one hand, the president is trying to eliminate the threat of a military coup and therefore tries to gain the officers’ favor, while, on the other hand, he is easing living conditions for soldiers, which his critics see as a decrease in combat readiness.

In addition, despite the routine rhetoric about North Korean provocations, a significant part of South Korean generals and officers are confident that the North will not be the one to start a “unification war”. Despite the fact that the formal rhetoric of national unification is not going anywhere, Pyongyang has an understanding that these are nothing more than general words, and the war with the South, which will be supported by the US and many others, will not end in victory for the North. Rather, it is this understanding that leads to a certain decrease in combat readiness, and to the remarks of conservatives saying “what if it were not an individual defector, but a group of special forces,” the military has a not at all satisfactory answer of “there will simply be no special forces under the current situation.”

So the author is already wondering who will be next after the diver. Hopefully a hang glider or a makeshift blimp. Would make for a good story.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.