South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Jan. 3 said a man spotted crossing the eastern inter-Korean border into North Korea on New Year’s Day is presumed to be a North Korean defector who previously entered South Korea via the same route.
On Jan. 2, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said an unidentified person was spotted crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates the two Koreas, at around 9:20 a.m. local time on Jan. 1, prompting the military to carry out a search operation to capture the person, which failed.
The person was confirmed to have crossed the Military Demarcation Line and defected to North Korea at around 10:40 p.m., the JCS stated.
The military also discovered from monitoring equipment that the man had climbed a barbed wire fence and entered the heavily armed DMZ at around 6:40 p.m. on Jan. 1. The breach went unnoticed until 9:20 p.m.
“In our initial response, we think some part of our efforts were insufficient, something we think should have been done more actively,” an official at the ministry said, Yonhap News Agency reported.
South Korea said it notified North Korea about the border crossing but had yet to receive a reply. The man was later identified as a North Korean defector, although his identity has yet to be confirmed, Yonhap reported.
“The authorities presume the person is a North Korean defector and are in the process of verifying any related facts,” the ministry said on Jan. 3.
Surveillance footage showed that the man turned out to be the same North Korean defector who entered South Korea in November 2020 through the eastern front-line route, the official said. The man is believed to have come to South Korea to work as a cleaner.
The official noted that no evidence of espionage had been found so far.
The border crossing, which is illegal in South Korea, came as North Korea has carried out strict anti-coronavirus measures since shutting its borders in early 2020, although it hasn’t confirmed any infections.
In September 2020, South Korea’s military reported that a South Korean fisheries official had been shot dead by North Korean troops after attempting to defect to the North. His body was later burned by the troops.
North Korea stated that the shooting was a defensive measure amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus.
Reuters contributed to this report.