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By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean defector who was living in South Korea crossed the tensely guarded western sea border on a fishing boat he stole, military officials said Thursday, amid high tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Lee Hyeok-chul, 28, stole a 9-ton crab fishing boat on the border island of Yeonpyeong and sailed across the maritime border called the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea at 10:49 p.m. on Wednesday.
"The ship was anchored at a port after being used for fishing during the daytime," a senior military official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. "The crab fisherman is seen to have illegally taken the ship at night."
The keys had been left in the engine of the fishing boat, according to officials.
The boat's owner called Lee's cell phone to urge him to return, but he continued sailing north, the official said, in an apparent attempt to return to the communist country.
By the time the South Korean Navy detected the ship approaching the NLL, it was only 1 kilometer from the border, the military officials noted.
"The ship is seen to have made its approach near the radar's blind spot," the official said.
Lee had fled his communist homeland and arrived in the South in March 2007, and came to Yeonpyeong Island two months ago to work as a crab fisherman, they noted. Lee is known to have fled North Korea on four occasions before entering South Korea.
"Investigations are currently underway to figure out the exact cause of his border crossing," a defense ministry official said.
The defector's border crossing came at a time when military tensions are close to reaching a flash point in the wake of bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang in response to joint drills by South Korea and the United States and additional U.N. sanctions imposed in response to its third nuclear test in February.
Yeonpyeong Island, located 1.5 kilometers south of the maritime border, was shelled in November 2010 by a North Korean attack, which killed four South Koreans.
The small island, which is famous for crab fishing, is ready for war at any time, lined with tank traps and trenches, and equipped with fully stocked shelters to which residents can go during air raid drills.
After the North last month threatened to strike the front-line island in response to joint drills in the South, more tanks and artillery pieces are now placed within easy range of North Korea.
The two Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
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