S. Korean defense chief apologizes for undetected border crossing by N. Korean fishermen

Lim Chang-won Reporter() | Posted : June 20, 2019, 15:21 | Updated : June 20, 2019, 15:21

[Yonhap Photo]

SEOUL -- South Korea's defense chief apologized for a security loophole exposed by a small wooden boat which made an uninterrupted voyage across the tightly guarded maritime border to put four North Koreans ashore in a fishing port by evading a tight military surveillance network.

The boat reached a point off Samcheok around 9 p.m. (1200 GMT) on June 14 after crossing the maritime border, waiting with its engine turned off, and moved to the eastern port of Samcheok the following day when the sunrise began. A morning walker spotted it and made a quick report to the coast guard.

Two North Korean fishermen were allowed to stay because they expressed a desire to defect to South Korea, while the two others were sent back through the border village of Panmunjom on Monday.

The boat's undetected voyage to Samkcheok raised concerns about possible deficiencies in the military's surveillance capabilities. Critics said it was reminiscent of a prominent infiltration in September 1996 when a North Korean espionage submarine with 25 North Korean infiltrators ran aground in a coastal town 32 kilometers (19.8 miles) north of Samcheok.

The 1996 infiltration triggered a massive manhunt that left four civilians and 12 South Korean soldiers dead. One infiltrator was captured, 11 were killed by other members, and 13 were shot dead by South Korean troops. Since then, anti-infiltration equipment such as radars and thermal observation devices for infiltration-route analysis have been installed along the east coast.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo apologized and vowed to conduct a thorough investigation. "In the wake of this incident, the military will thoroughly check the status of its vigilance operations and sternly punish those responsible," he said in a statement, adding the military would reinforce its alert status and re-establish discipline.

"If there was any false report or cover-up in the process of handling the case, we will thoroughly investigate and take stern measures in accordance with the law and regulations," Jeong said.

The defense ministry said that a joint investigation team has been dispatched for a week-long on-site investigation into troops involved in coastal and maritime border operations. Ministry officials acknowledged that radars and surveillance devices should be upgraded.

Troops involved in coastal and maritime border operations have apparently failed to detect the small North Korean boat because they misjudged what was in detected in their intelligent video surveillance system, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters.

The two Koreas are still technically at war with no peace treaty signed at the end of the 1950-53 conflict. 

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