North Korean Pilot Defects South in MiG-19

SEOUL -- A North Korean pilot flew his unarmed MiG-19 jet fighter across the world's most heavily guarded border Thursday in the first such defection to South Korea in 13 years.


Then he threw his arms in the air and shouted, "Hurray!"


"I couldn't live under the North's system any longer," Captain Lee Chul Soo, 30, shouted to reporters.


The defection came against the backdrop of a worsening economic crisis in his communist homeland, where the United Nations says a famine may be developing.


It also occurred as North Korea continued to violate the 1953 armistice that has been keeping a fragile peace between the enemy Koreas.


Just hours earlier, five North Korean gunboats had intruded into South Korean coastal waters.


Confronted with South Korean jet interceptors, Lee waggled his plane's wings and lowered the landing gear to signal his intention to surrender. After landing at Suwon military airport south of Seoul, his first request was for a glass of whiskey.


Lee kept his eyes downcast, chain smoking, as he talked of the family left behind: father, wife and two children. He said he graduated from North Korea's 17th Aviation School in 1985, and became disillusioned with communism.


He had been on what appeared to be a routine training flight from an air base at Onchun, near Pyongyang, the North's capital, when he broke formation and turned southward, South Korea's Defense Ministry said.


The incursion caused the South Korean military to order an air raid warning in Seoul and surrounding areas for the first time in 13 years.


But in Seoul -- South Korea's capital and home to a quarter of its people -- an automatic switch to sound the warning had been turned off, and manual operators disregarded the message to sound the sirens. Those responsible will be reprimanded, officials said.


There was no confusion as "most people" among the millions in the alerted areas took shelter, police said. South Koreans are trained in monthly air raid drills but -- unlike Thursday's warnings -- the sirens on training days are preceded by public notices.


The last real air raid warning had been sounded in 1983, the last time a North Korean jet fighter pilot flew across the border to defect, also in a MiG-19, the mainstay of the North's fighters.


Meanwhile, North Korea denied entering South Korean waters early Thursday, and instead accused South Korea of violating its coastal waters.


The North's official Korean Central News Agency said eight South Navy naval ships, including a destroyer, entered North Korean waters at 5:40 a.m. local time but were chased out by a North Korean navy boat.


Last Friday, seven North Korean soldiers entered a neutral zone north of Seoul and fired into the air, retreating after South Korean guards fired warning shots.


In early April, the communist North had sent up to 180 soldiers armed with mortars, machine guns and other heavy weapons into the neutral border village of Panmunjom.


Observers believe that the incursions are designed to discredit a temporary armistice in place since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.


The North has evicted outside cease-fire monitors from its territory, closed its border offices, and declared it would no longer honor the armistice.


More than 100 North Koreans have defected in the past two years, complaining about severe food shortages and other hardships.


The North's chronic food shortage was aggravated by massive floods last summer, prompting the country to appeal for outside aid for the first time.


In Washington on Wednesday, Douglas Coutts, a UN World Food Program official, said North Korea is cutting food allotments to most of its people to a mere 200 grams a day.


He warned of a "developing famine" if massive food aid is not provided.