SEOUL, South Korea — After North Korea on Sunday accused a man of secretly crossing into the country from South Korea and bringing the coronavirus with him, Seoul went in search of any defectors in the South who had gone missing.
By Monday, South Korean officials had zeroed in on a 24-year-old man, identified only by his family name, Kim, who in 2017 swam across the western inter-Korea border to defect to the South. On July 19, he swam back across the border into Kaesong in the North after crawling through a drain under barbed-wire fences, they said.
It was not immediately clear why the defector had crossed one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders to return to the North. The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the man had been wanted by the South Korean police for questioning after a fellow North Korean defector accused him of raping her last month.
But North Korea said on Sunday that the North Korean man was “suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus,” adding that he could be the country’s first virus case. And the reverse defection prompted the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to order a total lockdown of Kaesong, a city of 300,000 people on the border with South Korea, and declare a “maximum” national emergency.
Until Sunday, North Korea had repeatedly said that it had no Covid-19 cases. The claim was questioned by outside experts given that the country shares a long land border with China, where the virus erupted late last year. The North also lacks equipment and medicine to fight an epidemic.
But South Korea officials could not say whether the man might have carried the coronavirus across the border.
He had never been tested for the virus, Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official at the South’s national disease-control headquarters, said on Monday, and he was not known to have been in contact with a coronavirus patient. The South Korean health authorities have tracked down two people who had frequent contact with the defector while he was in the South, and both tested negative, he said.
South Korea’s military said on Monday that its investigators had found a bag belonging to the defector abandoned on Ganghwa Island, west of Seoul. They also found signs that he had crawled through a drain beneath the border’s barbed-wire fences.
“We spotted the specific location from which he crossed over to the North on Ganghwa Island,” said Col. Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman for the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a briefing on Monday.
The defector’s current location is not known. 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 divides North and South Korea before emptying into the Yellow Sea. At some spots, the two sides are separated by over a mile of water.
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He apparently swam across the same general area when he originally defected. At least four other North Koreans have swum across the western river border to the South since 2012.
A vast majority of the 33,000 North Koreans who have fled to the South since the early 1990s came through China. But some, like Mr. Kim, have crossed the inter-Korean border, which, in addition to being fortified by layers of tall, barbed-wire fences, is guarded by armed sentries and minefields.