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South Korea: Man who crossed DMZ into North was previous defector

Military guard posts of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, are seen in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea
Associated Press/Ahn Young-joon

The man who crossed from South Korea to North Korea over the weekend is believed to be a previous defector from the North, officials said.

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said in a statement on Monday that authorities believe the person who crossed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) over the weekend “is a North Korean defector,” according to Reuters. The ministry said it is working to verify facts connected to the situation.

A ministry official later told reporters that authorities believe the man who crossed the DMZ traveled to South Korea in November 2020, according to Reuters. The man is in his 30s.

“Footage showed he had a identical look and dress as the person who defected from the North in 2020,” the official said, according to Reuters.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Saturday an individual was detected on the eastern side of the DMZ, which triggered a search operation. Border crossings of that nature are illegal in South Korea.

Movements through the DMZ are rare, according to Reuters, as most defectors cross through China.

The official said investigators are working to discern if movement on the northern end of the border was North Korean troops trying to escort the man, according to Reuters. Currently, however, the official said Seoul does not believe the situation amounts to espionage.

The suspected defector previously told investigators he was a former gymnast who traveled over barbed wire fences to move into South Korea before being caught by South Korean troops, The Associated Press reported, citing an anonymous official. 

North Korea’s borders have been shut since early 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the country remains under strict COVID-19 protocols despite not reporting any cases — an assertion about which many experts are skeptical.

Troops from both Koreas have been on high alert since September 2020, when the North fatally shot a Southern fisheries official who was floating in the water, according to the AP. South Korea said North Korean troops were told to shoot anyone who was crossing the DMZ in an illicit manner, contending that such action was needed to safeguard against the COVID-19 pandemic.

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