Defector’s border crossing captured by military’s surveillance equipment; Seoul says defector had not tested positive


A drain that runs under barbed wire fences in the northern part of Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, may have been used by a North Korean defector to return home (Yonhap)

A drain that runs under barbed wire fences in the northern part of Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul, may have been used by a North Korean defector to return home (Yonhap)

SEOUL: A North Korean defector was caught on military surveillance equipment as he fled across the border to his communist homeland, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

The border crossing by the 24-year-old man, surnamed Kim, became known after North Korea revealed Sunday that a “runaway” returned home in the border city of Kaesong with coronavirus symptoms and the entire city was blocked off to prevent the spread of the virus.

South Korean officials said Kim had been under investigation over allegations he raped a female defector.

Kim was spotted in multiple clips of CCTV footage near the border, but troops apparently failed to identify him as a person trying to cross the border.

“Though not fully confirmed, we are weighing the possibility that the person wore a life jacket and swam with just his head above the surface of the water,” JCS Chairman Gen. Park Han-ki said during a defense committee session at the parliament.



“Looking at some of the secured footage, it would have been very difficult to identify him as he could have been confused with other floating materials that were there,” he said.

The defector is believed to have passed through a waterway to evade South Korean border guards before reaching the shore and swimming a few kilometers into North Korea.

Park said Kim appears to have managed to go through obstacles that were set up inside the waterway due to his physique — 163 centimeters tall and 54 kilograms. Wires established inside the route were aged, which would have allowed him to easily bend and pass through.

The latest incident brought the military under fire, as it has already faced intense public criticism for a series of security breaches indicating lax discipline.

Last year, a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans arrived at a South Korean port on the east coast without being detected, prompting Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to apologize.

“I have no words to say even if I am told off a hundred times over the issue. As all the responsibility lies with me as the defense minister, I will explain (the incident) to you in more detail later,” Jeong said during the committee session.

Park also said he feels a “grave sense of responsibility” for the incident, vowing to take necessary steps to respond better to any unexpected situations.

The military will try to confirm other details of the incident by this week and disclose further information to the public, the chairman said.

On Monday, Seoul said that the North Korean defector had neither tested positive for the coronavirus nor come into contact with confirmed patients, health officials said Monday, raising questions about Pyongyang’s claims that he came back with virus symptoms.

The North claimed Sunday that the defector returned to his hometown in the border city of Kaesong on July 19 and that multiple tests showed he is suspected of virus infection. The North also said leader Kim Jong-un declared a state of emergency for the region and blocked off the city to prevent the virus from spreading.

But South Korean health officials said he is unlikely to have contracted the virus.

“The person is neither registered as a COVID-19 patient nor classified as a person who came in contact with virus patients,” Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said in a press briefing on Monday.

Yoon also said that the Korean Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) conducted virus tests on two people who had close contact with the defector, and both of them tested negative for the virus.

Discrepancies between the North and South Korean authorities have raised speculation over the possibility Pyongyang is fabricating its claims that the defector could be infected with the coronavirus.

Experts say North Korea may be using the latest incident to shift its responsibility onto South Korea and defectors over the inflow and spread of the coronavirus in the country.

“The North could be propagating a message that while they were very cautious in efforts to prevent the coronavirus, South Korea — which claims to be a model nation in anti-virus measures — was actually not,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said.

“North Korea has claimed to be a clean country free of the coronavirus, and they could be doing this to hold the South responsible for the inflow of the virus,” he said. “It is also possible that they are leaving room for inter-Korean health cooperation in the future. North Korea is taking a very cautious approach.”

Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, also raised the possibility that the North could be using the defector as a pretext for receiving health care assistance.

“There are two sides to the coin. It is possible that the North is using this as an excuse to get health care assistance from the South, but they could also be using this to strengthen internal unity,” the professor said. “We will have to wait and see until the authorities finish checking all the facts.”

North Korea has claimed to be coronavirus-free, but it has taken relatively swift measures, shutting down its borders since late January and tightening quarantine measures.


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