SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean soldier has defected to South Korea through the heavily fortified border dividing the two countries, an official from the South's spy agency said Tuesday, in only the second such defection in a decade.
Meanwhile, North Korea warned it would turn South Korea into "debris" and break off all relations if Seoul does not halt "confrontational" activities against the communist country.
"The puppet authorities had better remember that the advanced pre-emptive strike of our own style will reduce everything opposed to the nation and reunification to debris, not just setting them on fire," the North's military said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Also Tuesday, South Korea's spy chief told lawmakers that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — though "not physically perfect" — appears to be recovering and is running the country without difficulty. South Korean and U.S. officials say North Korea's autocratic 66-year-old leader suffered a stroke, reportedly in mid-August. North Korea denies he is ill.
National Intelligence Service chief Kim Sung-ho made the remarks during a closed-door session with a parliamentary committee, according to Rep. Park Young-sun of the opposition Democratic Party.
Defections across the border rare
The North Korean defector was being investigated, a National Intelligence Service official said, declining to identify his name, rank and the date of his defection. The soldier recently approached a South Korean guard post in a central part of the Demilitarized Zone asking for asylum in the South, the NIS official said.
The soldier told South Korean officials he was frustrated by life in North Korea and concerned about his future in the communist country, the NIS official said. The official asked not to be named, citing the agency policy.
It would be the second defection in a decade across the border. A North Korean officer also defected to the South through the DMZ in April.
Defections across the border — one of the world's most heavily armed — are rare. The vast majority of North Koreans fleeing their communist homeland travel by land through China and Southeast Asia before arriving in the South.
More than 14,300 North Koreans have arrived in the South since the Korean War, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Relations between the two countries have been tense since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's conservative government took office in February, pledging to get tough with Pyongyang. The two sides had no official contact until a military meeting earlier this month, and 20-minute talks were held Monday at the border.
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The North threatened to cut off all ties if the "confrontational racket" continues, citing a South Korean general's remarks about a pre-emptive strike; the defense minister's comments about Kim Jong Il's health and propaganda leafleting by activists.
Earlier this month, Gen. Kim Tae-young, chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a parliamentary committee that his military was prepared to attack suspected nuclear sites in North Korea if the communist country attempts to use its atomic weapons on the South.
Later, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told a news conference in Washington that both the U.S. and South Korea believed Kim Jong Il remained in control, adding: "If we show him too much attention, then we might spoil him."
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said that Tokyo has information that Kim Jong Il may be in a hospital and a French doctor went to Beijing, perhaps en route to North Korea.
"His condition is not so good. However, I don't think he is totally incapable of making decisions," Aso said at the upper house foreign affairs committee.
North Korea denies he is ill, but the leader was out of public sight for two months and missed several important anniversary celebrations, sparking speculation about his health.
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