South Korean authorities have deported an American man who was caught wandering near the highly fortified border with North Korea. The deportation comes after a North Korean soldier was shot trying to defect.
Bruce Byron Lowrance, a Michigan resident, came to the region because of the ongoing confrontation between North Korea and the international community over the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. South Korean officials said he told them he wanted to help resolve the dispute.
After a tip-off from a villager, Korean soldiers caught the man entering a civilian-controlled area just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) without special government approval on November 13.
Lowrance wasn’t carrying any suspicious belongings other than extra underwear at the time of his arrest, and didn’t have any equipment necessary to scale the barbed wire fences installed along the DMZ, according to South Korean military officials.
South Korean Army General Suk Wook told lawmakers Lowrance came to the country on November 3 and was believed to have stayed in Seoul and Munsan, a border community not far from the Joint Security Area, the point of contact between the North and South Korean militaries.
The general said Lowrance made “confusing or contradictory statements” to Korean investigators after he was found, according to the Los Angeles Times.
His trip to South Korea comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea. President Donald Trump declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism on Monday. The designation will allow Washington to impose further penalties on Pyongyang, as part of the US pressure campaign against North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
In September, the Trump administration sanctioned eight North Korean banks and 26 individuals said to act as their representatives in various countries, including China, Russia, Libya and the United Arab Emirates. A week prior, Trump signed an executive order targeting North Korea’s access to the international banking system.
The same day Lowrance was arrested, North Korean troops in the same western portion of the DMZ fired at a comrade who fled to the South at a jointly controlled DMZ area. The soldier, identified only by his surname as Oh, was shot five times and was in serious condition at a South Korean hospital following two rounds of surgeries.
“The patient is not going to die,” trauma surgeon Lee Cook-jong told reporters at Ajou University Hospital, south of Seoul, according to the Washington Post.
Surveillance footage released by the US military in Korea on Wednesday showed Oh driving a jeep southward, before getting stuck in a ditch just yards from the DMZ. Oh jumped out and started running for the line as four North Korean border guards tried to stop him by firing more than 40 rounds at him. The video showed Oh lying wounded in a pile of leaves against a building on the southern side. Then three South Korean soldiers crawled out and dragged him to safety.
Americans have been occasionally arrested after entering North Korea illegally from China but a US citizen trying to get in from South Korea is unusual. In 2014, another American was arrested by South Korean soldiers for allegedly trying to swim across a river to North Korea. South Korean media described him as a 29-year old-computer repairman from Texas who hoped to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Although hostilities in the Korean War were halted following a July 1953 armistice, a peace treaty has never been signed. The Korean Peninsula remains technically at war, with about 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea to deter “potential aggression” from the North.