North Korean soldier walks across border to defect, South Korea says

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Neutral venue -- When the two Koreas meet for talks, they do so in the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjun, an abandoned village that straddles the DMZ.

SEOUL, South Korea (June 15, 2015) — A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Monday across the heavily fortified border that separates the two countries, South Korean authorities said.

The soldier crossed the Military Demarcation Line on foot from the eastern North Korean province of Gangwon, said a South Korean Defense Ministry official, who declined to be identified.

Further details on the circumstances of the defection weren’t immediately available. There was no reaction to the news on North Korean state media.

Border crossings are risky and rare

The border between North and South Korea is considered to be the most heavily militarized in the world. The two countries technically remain at war, because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armed truce and not a peace treaty.

North Korean soldiers have occasionally made it across the highly sensitive zone in the past.

In 2012, one managed to cross the border unnoticed and knock on the door of a South Korean barracks, embarrassing the South Korean military and prompting a public apology from the defense minister at the time for the security lapse.

But defections directly across the border from North to South Korea are rare.

Defection harder under Kim Jong Un

Most people attempt to flee the impoverished, oppressively ruled North by crossing the more open border into China and then trying to make their way to South Korea through other countries.

More than 26,000 refugees from the North have reached the South since the end of the Korean War, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul.

The vast majority of them arrived during the past 15 years. But defection has become harder in recent years, the Unification Ministry says, and the number of people doing it has fallen significantly since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as the North Korean leader.

North Korea says it’s willing to talk

Separately, North Korea on Monday said it was willing to hold talks with the South — but with conditions attached.

“If an atmosphere of trust and reconciliation is created between North and South Korea, there is no reason not to hold dialogue and negotiation between the two sides,” a North Korean government statement carried by state media said.

The conditions it set out included its often repeated call for South Korea to stop holding joint military exercises with the United States, a request that Seoul and Washington have consistently dismissed.

2 South Koreans to be released

Pyongyang also told Seoul on Monday that it plans to release two South Korean citizens this week, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

North Korea said the two South Koreans — a man in his late 50s with the surname Lee, and a woman in her early 50s with the surname Jin — illegally entered North Korea on May 11. North Korea detained them the same month.

The South Korean government said it believes the two went missing while traveling in China near the North Korean border. It expects to collect them Wednesday morning at Panmunjom, the “truce village” that straddles the border between the two Koreas.

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