The person who crossed South Korea’s heavily fortified border into North Korea last week was a defector from the North who had struggled in his new life, according to officials and media reports.
The news on Tuesday heightened fresh debate in South Korea over how such defectors are treated in the country and raised questions about whether they receive adequate support after making the dangerous journey from the impoverished, tightly controlled North to the wealthy, democratic South.
A South Korean military official told the Reuters news agency that the defector who returned was a man in his 30s who had crossed into the country just over a year ago.
The official said he was making a poor living while working as a janitor in the South Korean capital, Seoul.
“I would say he was classified as lower class, barely scraping a living,” the official said, declining to elaborate citing privacy concerns.
NK News website also quoted a South Korean official saying the man “had a difficult life” in his new home.
The official dismissed concerns that the former defector could have been a spy, saying the man did not have a job that would give him access to sensitive information.
South Korea’s military, which has come under fire for the border breach, has launched an inquiry into how the North Korean man had evaded guards despite being caught on surveillance cameras hours before crossing the border.
North Korean officials have not commented on the incident and state media have not reported it.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that police in the northern Seoul district of Nowon who provided safety protection and other care to the man had raised concerns in June over his possible return to the North.
But it said no action was taken due to a lack of concrete evidence.
Police declined to comment.
An official at Seoul’s Unification Ministry handling cross-border affairs said on Tuesday the returnee had received government support for personal safety, housing, medical treatment and employment.
The man had little interaction with neighbours, and was seen throwing away his belongings a day before he crossed the border, Yonhap reported.
“He was taking out a mattress and bedding to garbage dumps on that morning, and it was strange because they were all too new,” a neighbour was quoted by Yonhap as saying. “I thought about asking him to give it to us, but ended up not doing that, because we’ve never said hi” to each other.”
As of September, about 33,800 North Koreans had resettled in South Korea, daring a long, risky journey – usually via China – in pursuit of a new life while fleeing poverty and oppression at home.
Since 2012, only 30 defectors are confirmed to have returned to the North, according to the Unification Ministry.
But defectors and activists say there could be many more unknown cases among those who struggled to adapt to life in the South.
About 56 percent of defectors are categorised as low income, according to ministry data submitted to defector-turned-lawmaker Ji Seong-ho. Nearly 25 percent are in the lowest bracket subject to national basic livelihood subsidies, six times the ratio of the general population.
In a survey released last month by the Database Center For North Korean Human Rights and NK Social Research in Seoul, approximately 18 percent of 407 defectors polled said they were willing to return to the North, most of them citing nostalgia.
“There’s a complex range of factors including longing for families left in the North, and emotional and economic difficulties that emerge while resettling,” the Unification Ministry official said, promising to examine policy and improve support for defectors