SEOUL: Thousands of South Korean troops and police were Sunday hunting near the tense border with North Korea for a soldier who shot dead five comrades in a rare shooting incident.
The 23-year-old army sergeant, surnamed Lim, opened fire on other soldiers at a guard post on the eastern section of the heavily guarded frontier Saturday night.
The shooting spree left five dead and seven wounded - all members of Lim's own unit of the 22nd infantry division in the western province of Gangwon.
He ran off with a K2 assault rifle and a stash of ammunition, a military spokesman said, adding Lim was due to be discharged in the next few months after completing his compulsory military service.
The army issued its highest state of alert in nearby areas and launched a huge search involving thousands of soldiers and police, who set up roadblocks and inspected vehicles.
"A manhunt is underway to find him as early as possible and to prevent another incident from taking place," defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told reporters.
Special commandos and army helicopters have joined the search operation, and residents in nearby towns were advised to stay at home and to tip authorities about anyone suspicious.
The army has formed a special team to investigate the incident, Kim said, adding that the wounded soldiers were in a stable condition.
"We have deployed as many troops as possible to the search operations and to block possible escape routes," Colonel Roh Jae-Chun, a spokesman for the operation, told reporters.
Lim had difficulty adapting to the military, and past psychological evaluations had advised senior officers to pay special attention to him, a defence ministry official who wished to remain anonymous told AFP.
The military was also closely monitoring the border to prevent Lim from fleeing to the North, he added.
The 22nd infantry division also suffered a bloody shooting in 1984, when a private opened fire and threw a grenade at barrack mates, killing 15.
Cho Jun-Hee then crossed the border to defect to the North, a move which Pyongyang's state media later confirmed.
Cold War frontier
The site of Saturday's shooting is just south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) - a buffer strip that runs the full length of the 250-kilometre (155-mile) frontier.
The four-kilometre-wide DMZ - known as the world's last Cold War frontier - features guard posts manned by the rival armies, barbed wire and roads bisecting minefields.
Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war.
Many of the South Korean soldiers on border duty are young male recruits doing their mandatory, two-year military service.
These young men make up a large part of the South's 691,000-strong troop presence, compared to 1.17 million in the North.
Most of the victims in Saturday's shooting were such conscripts, aged from 19 to 23.
Bullying and cruelty in the barracks have long tarnished the armed forces, and been blamed for many fatal incidents in the military.
In July 2011, a 19-year-old marine conscript killed four colleagues in a shooting spree on Gangwha island near the border.
He tried to kill himself with a grenade but survived. He later said he acted after being bullied.
In June 2005, eight soldiers were killed and two seriously wounded when a 22-year-old conscript threw a grenade and sprayed bullets over sleeping colleagues at a frontline guard post north of Seoul.
In both those cases the men were court-martialled and sentenced to death, although the penalty was not carried out.
The armed forces have in recent years taken steps including a ban on beating to tackle what they called a "distorted military culture." -AFP