SEOUL, South Korea – Authorities in South Korea confirmed on Monday that a 24-year-old man who defected from North Korea in 2017 had secretly returned to the North, crossing one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders at the time. of a pandemic and probably bringing the coronavirus with them.
On Sunday, North Korea said a man had crossed into the country from the South and was probably infected with the virus. South Korean officials went in search of the missing and by Monday they had identified the 24-year-old man, identified only by his last name Kim.
It was not immediately clear why the defender returned to the North. South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the man was wanted by South Korean police for questioning after a North Korean associate accused him of rape last month.
North Korea said on Sunday that the man was “suspected of being infected with the vicious virus”, adding that he could be the first case of the virus in the country. The reversal led North leader Kim Jong Un to order a total blockade of Kaesong, a city of 300,000 people on the border with South Korea, and declare a “maximum” national emergency.
Until Sunday, North Korea has repeatedly said there are no cases of Covid-19. The allegation has been called into question by outside experts, given that the country shares a long land border with China, where the virus erupted late last year. In the north, there is also a lack of equipment and drugs to fight the epidemic.
But South Korean officials could not say whether the man may have carried the coronavirus across the border.
He has never been tested for the virus, said Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official at the National Disease Headquarters in the South, on Monday, and is not known to have been in contact with a coronavirus patient. South Korean health authorities tracked down two people who had frequent contact with the defector while he was in the south, and both tested negative, he said.
The South Korean military said on Monday that its investigators had found a bag belonging to an abandoned island on the Ganges island west of Seoul. They also found signs that he had crawled through a sewer under barbed wire fences at the border.
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“We noticed the specific location from which he crossed north to Ganges Island,” said Colonel Kim Joon-rak, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean military during a briefing Monday.
The current location of the defector is unknown. South Korean officials said he was a native of Kaesong and was apparently familiar with the terrain around the western front line, where the Han River separates North and South Korea before emptying into the Yellow Sea. In some places the two sides are separated by over a mile of water.
Apparently he was swimming through the same common area where he initially defected. At least four other North Koreans have crossed the western river border south since 2012.
Most of the 33,000 North Koreans who have fled south since the early 1990s have passed through China. But some, such as Mr. Kim, have crossed the Korean border, which, in addition to being fortified by layers of high barbed wire fences, is guarded by armed guards and minefields.