The person who crossed into North Korea from South Korea via the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries on New Year’s Day is believed to be the same person who made it over the heavily guarded border into South Korea in late 2020.
The person was spotted by South Korean surveillance technology crawling over a barbed-wire fence on the southern edge of the border area and moving toward the North Korean side, the Associated Press reported, citing Seoul military officials.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said Monday said it suspects the person is a former North Korean citizen who was captured south of the DMZ in November 2020.
The person identified himself as a former gymnast and said he scrambled over the barbed-wire fence before being picked up by South Korean troops.
The appearance of the person on the security footage reportedly matched that of the former defector.
A thermal observation device used by South Korea detected four people on the northern side of the border region on Saturday, suggesting three North Korean soldiers picked up the defector, the Defense Ministry said.
South Korea asked North Korea to ensure the person’s safety via a military hotline communication channel. North Korea replied that it received the South Korean messages but didn’t elaborate on the fate of the border crosser, according to the ministry.
South Korean media reports said the former gymnast defector worked as a cleaner and had economic difficulties. The Defense Ministry refused to confirm the reports but said an initial investigation showed he wasn’t engaged in espionage or other suspicious activities in South Korea.
The DMZ stretches for 155 miles and is guarded by barbed-wire fences, anti-tank traps, landmines and combat troops on both sides.
In September 2020, the North Korean military shot and killed a South Korean fisheries official found floating in its waters in line with what Seoul called strict anti-coronavirus rules that permitted shooting anyone found illegally crossing the border.
While it is incredibly rare for South Koreans to flee to the North, about 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the late 1990s, typically going through China rather than attempting to cross the heavily guarded DMZ. Only about 30 have returned home in the last 10 years.
Observers say those returnees likely failed to adjust to their new highly competitive, capitalistic lives in South Korea, had big debts or were blackmailed by North Korean agents who threatened to harm their loved ones if they didn’t return.
With Post wires