Seoul questions North Korean man who crossed armed border

The man was found early on Tuesday near a checkpoint on the eastern end of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.

The DMZ is 250km (160 miles) long, and about 4km (2.5 miles) wide zone separating North and South Korea [File: Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

South Korea’s military says it has captured a North Korean man who crossed the heavily fortified border between the two countries and is investigating whether he was attempting to defect.

The man was found at about 4:20am (19:20 GMT on Monday) near a checkpoint on the eastern end of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, and was taken into custody after a three-hour search, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said on Tuesday.

“He is presumed to be a North Korean and we’re conducting an investigation into details, including how he had come down and whether he wished to defect,” the JCS said in a statement.

“We will give further details after wrapping up the probe,” it added.

There was no unusual movement across the border but the military is reviewing its security posture in the region, it added.

About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty for South Korea.

The vast majority of the defectors first travel to neighbouring China, sometimes staying there for years before making their way on to the South via third countries. Only a handful risk crossing the DMZ, which is heavily-fortified and closely watched.

Overall defections down

North Korea’s prolonged lockdowns to tackle COVID-19 have led to a sharp decrease in the number of defectors arriving in South Korea.

Some 200 North Koreans settled in the South last year, down approximately 80 percent from 2019 and an all-time low, Unification Minister Lee In-young said last month, citing the reclusive state’s shutdown of its frontiers in January 2020.

The last publicly known case was in November when a North Korean man defected to South Korea via the eastern DMZ.

In early 2020, after months of secrecy, Seoul also acknowledged that a senior North Korean diplomat, who was acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to the South with his family in 2019.

north korean defectors sending balloons
About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty for the South [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

Cross-border ties soured after denuclearisation talks between Pyongyang and Washington stalled in 2019, and anger grew last year after North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official who went missing at sea.

In July, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency and sealed off a border town after a person with COVID-19 symptoms illegally crossed the border into the North from South Korea.

North Korea has not confirmed any COVID-19 cases, although Seoul officials have cast doubt on their claims given the country’s close relationship with China, where the virus first emerged.

Source: News Agencies, Reuters