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Defector appears to have swum back to NK: military

The Han River runs between Ganghwa Island and North Korea's North Hwanghae Province, in this photo taken on Monday. (Yonhap)
The Han River runs between Ganghwa Island and North Korea's North Hwanghae Province, in this photo taken on Monday. (Yonhap)

The man who North Korea claimed returned across the border with coronavirus symptoms after defecting to the South three years ago appears to have crossed by swimming after going through a drainage ditch to escape guards, military officials in Seoul said Monday.

The South Korean authorities spotted a specific location on the island of Gangwhado, where a bag believed to belong to him was found, said Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesperson Kim Jun-rak.

The 24-year-old man, identified by the surname Kim, is thought to have evaded South Korean border guards by escaping through a drainage ditch located under barbed wire fences along the border, which leads to a Han River estuary to the West Sea.

The defector’s return home became known here when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared a state of emergency because of a suspected coronavirus case Sunday, saying a “runaway” returned to the border city of Kaesong, potentially carrying the coronavirus with him.

South Korean health officials, in a separate briefing Monday, said the defector is unlikely to have COVID-19, as he has no known link to any confirmed patients here. Officials also tested two people who had close contact with the defector, and both of them came out negative for the coronavirus.

The defector had taken a similar route when arriving to South Korea in June 2017, when he swam across the border to the island Gyodongdo, near Gangwhado, which sits just 1-2 kilometers from North Korea.

Before fleeing to the North, Kim was under police investigation over allegations made last month that he raped another defector at his home in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province.

Kim had denied the accusations, saying he was drunk and could not remember the incident, but police continued with the probe after the National Forensic Service found DNA on the victim. An arrest warrant was issued this month, when police received reports that Kim could possibly defect to the North.

Kim was last spotted on July 18, when he took a taxi to Gangwhado and arrived at a village there at around 2:20 a.m., only leaving a bag behind.

Police discovered clothing, swimming goggles and receipts for an exchange of 4.8 million won ($4,010) to US dollars inside the bag.

The North’s state media said the man returned to the North on July 19, but South Korean officials said they could not yet confirm the exact timing.

The police and military came under fire for failing to detect the crossing.

There had not been a reported case of a defector returning back to the North since 2017. The Unification Ministry said a total of 11 defectors had escaped to the communist country in recent years, with three in 2015 and four each in 2016 and 2017.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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