North Korean officer defects to South Korea across heavily armed border

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By KWANG-TAE KIM

Associated Press Write4

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea for the first time in a decade across the heavily fortified border dividing the countries, a South Korean official said Monday.

The North Korean officer approached a South Korean guard post Sunday on the western part of the frontier, an official at the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

The 28-year-old second lieutenant, identified only by his surname Ri, told South Korean guards he was seeking asylum in the South, Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified South Korean military official.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff official declined to confirm the news report, and spoke on condition of anonymity because the case was still being investigated.

The North's 1.1 million-member military is the backbone of leader Kim Jong Il's totalitarian rule.

Defections across the North-South border are rare and 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 12,250 North Koreans, mostly civilians, have arrived in the South since the Korean War, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.

The war ended with a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty.