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‘High chances’ that defector returned to North via border: Seoul

NK claims ‘runaway’ came back with coronavirus symptoms, shuts down border town Kaesong

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)

South Korea’s military said Sunday that someone may have crossed the inter-Korean border to North Korea, supporting the North’s claim that a defector returned home a week ago with symptoms of COVID-19.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said earlier in the day that the homecoming had prompted an emergency Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, presided over by its leader Kim Jong-un, who ordered a shift to the highest quarantine alert level and a complete shutdown of the border town of Kaesong.

Seoul’s military, while looking into the claim, said a person seemed to have crossed over to the North, without identifying the person as the defector mentioned by the North.

“Regarding the North’s report, our military has specified some people and is verifying facts in close collaboration with related agencies,” an official said. “The military has mobilized all resources -- recordings and surveillance -- to reevaluate our defense readiness.”

Pyongyang said the person was a returnee who had defected to the South three years earlier and that he crossed the military demarcation line on foot. Local media, citing sources from defector communities in the South, said the person was probably a man in his 20s surnamed Kim who swam to the South in 2017. 

They said Kim was facing a police investigation and was accused of rape, but the police declined to say whether the accused man was the same person said to have fled to the North.

Despite the North’s assertion that the defector traveled back on foot, the military has found no evidence. A Seoul government official said, “It is likely that the defector swam there, potentially along Ganghwado and adjacent Gimpo.” Ganghwado is an island west of Incheon and Gimpo is north of Incheon.

The Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, said it was looking into the details as well. The ministry looks after defectors from the North for five years upon their arrival here, and police monitor them throughout that time to see that no harm is done to them.

The Unification Ministry, along with the Defense Ministry, would likely be in hot water if the same man -- who had two years remaining in the defector protection program -- had indeed crossed the border on foot and returned to the North.

The KCNA, reporting on the emergency Politburo meeting, said the country had shifted to an emergency response system due to the “potential virus spread,” saying the man was a suspected carrier.

It said the man was put under strict quarantine after several blood tests and examinations of his upper respiratory organs yielded inconclusive results.

“There was an emergency in Kaesong City where a runaway who went to the South three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus, returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the military demarcation line,” the KCNA said.

Kim Jong-un took “the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong,” according to the KCNA.

“All the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and placed in quarantine.”

By Choi Si-young (