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June 28, 2017

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S. Korea army probed for border watch failure

SEOUL -- A South Korean army division faces embarrassing questions after a North Korean soldier traveled unchecked across one of the world's most fortified borders and knocked on a guard post asking for asylum.

The 22nd division based in the northeastern county of Goseong has been placed under disciplinary inspection over the incident on the night of Oct. 2, a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) official told journalists on Wednesday.

"Inspectors have confirmed a North Korean soldier knocked on the door of the guard outpost and South Korean soldiers answered the knocks," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yonhap news agency said the division could face sweeping disciplinary measures, partly for trying to cover up the circumstances of the soldier's defection.

The defector made his way through rows of electrified fencing dividing the two Koreas under cover of darkness.

Initially, military officials on the South side said he had been detected by surveillance cameras and guided to safety.

"We're investigating how such a (false) report was made," the JCS official said.

A lawmaker from the main opposition Democratic United Party, Kim Kwang-jin, said the incident highlighted "loose" discipline in the military.

"A North Korean agent armed with grenades or guns could have wiped out an entire platoon of South Korean soldiers," Kim said, pointing to another case of a North Korean civilian who crossed the border undetected last month.

JCS Chairman Jung Seung-jo admitted there had been failures. "We take them very seriously and we're investigating the incidents," he said.

Three North Korean soldiers have defected across the heavily-mined border since August, including one who said he shot dead two superiors before crossing to the South on Saturday.

A worsening food shortage at barracks in the impoverished North has fanned frustration among its soldiers, Yonhap quoted a South Korean intelligence official as saying.

The 22-year-old soldier who defected Oct. 2 reportedly stood 160 centimeters (five feet four inches) tall and weighed only 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

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