South Korean guards fired warning shots across the heavily militarized border with North Korea on Thursday as a soldier from the North defected, officials said, complicating efforts to ease tensions over the Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
A South Korean defense ministry official said up to 20 warning shots were fired at North Korean troops who approached too closely to the “military demarcation line”, apparently in search of the missing soldier.
Thursday’s defection came about five weeks after another North Korean soldier suffered critical gunshot wounds during a defection dash across the border on Nov. 13.
Two North Korean civilians who were found in a fishing boat on Wednesday had also sought to defect, officials in the South said.
That brings the total number of North Koreans who have defected by taking dangerous routes either directly across the border or by sea to 15 so far this year, including two other soldiers. That is three times the number last year, according to South Korean officials.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula were already high after North Korea accelerated testing of its missile and nuclear programs this year in defiance of international pressure.
The rash of defections also threatens to complicate South Korea’s efforts to ensure the smooth running of the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin in Pyeongchang in February.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday he had proposed postponing major military drills with the United States until after the games in an attempt to soothe relations, although officials in Seoul later said any proposed delay would depend on the North not engaging in any “provocations”.
Seoul says more than 880 North Koreans have defected to the South so far in 2017, but the vast majority have taken a less dangerous route through China.
Going through China, North Korea’s neighbor and sole major ally, means they avoid the heavily fortified demilitarized zone, which features landmines, barbed wire, surveillance cameras, electric fencing, and thousands of armed troops on both sides.
The number of defectors arriving successfully in the South has dropped since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, a trend defectors and experts say may be linked to a crackdown by Pyongyang.
There was no immediate comment from the secretive North about the latest incidents.
However, the North’s state media released a statement sharply denying U.S. allegations this week that Pyongyang was behind a number of recent cyber attacks.
Washington has publicly blamed North Korean hackers for a cyber attack in May that crippled hospitals, banks and other companies. Researchers also say the North was likely behind attacks on virtual currency exchanges.
The military drills with the United States have also complicated relations with China. South Korea says it needs the drills to guard against the North’s missile and nuclear ambitions but Pyongyang describes them as preparation for war.
The proposed delay in drills was discussed during a summit between Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week after the proposal was submitted to Washington, an official at the presidential Blue House said this week.
China and Russia have proposed a “freeze for freeze” arrangement under which North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the exercises, but there has been little interest from Washington or Pyongyang.
Beijing was angered when the South deployed a controversial U.S. anti-missile system this year. China fears the system’s powerful radar can see far into its territory and the row led to China taking economic measures that included blocking tour groups from visiting South Korea.
Some blocks on group tours had resumed, industry sources said this week, and Beijing has also rebuked Seoul for firing warning shots at Chinese fishing boats.