After three years of living in South Korea, defector Kim Geum-hyok returned to his native North Korea — swimming across the same river he’d crossed in 2017, South Korean officials said. North Korea has accused him of bringing coronavirus into the country for the first time, and resulted in putting Kaesong, Mr. Kim’s hometown, under lockdown.
Weeks before his departure, Mr. Kim, now 24, gave several interviews on a friend’s YouTube channel, talking about his life in the two Koreas. Even before Mr. Kim went back, his story was an unusual one. Firstly Mr. Kim made the dangerous decision to cross the inter-Korean border. Second, after defecting he made the rare decision to return.
In one of the YouTube interviews, Mr. Kim said he had lost most of his hearing at an early age. “Because of that, I had difficulty communicating with people,” he said. “I was beaten because I was told to bring one thing and brought some thing else.” When he was still a child, Kaesong, a city of 300,000, was chosen as the site of an industrial park run jointly by the two Koreas. Kaesong became a boomtown, awash with cash. Mr. Kim’s cousins worked at the park, he said, and he himself sold eggs and vegetables.
But four years ago, the South shut down the complex in a dispute over the North’s nuclear weapons program. The economy crashed, and Mr. Kim, like many others, was soon out of work. (Last month, with inter-Korean relations at another low, the North blew up an office in Kaesong that it had jointly operated with the South.) By June of 2017, Mr. Kim said he “saw no hope for the future, no meaning in life, wondering whether I should continue to live or die.” Seeing the South Korean buildings at night compelled him to “go there and check it out even if that meant my death,” he said.
Mr. Kim settled in the South Korean town of Gimpo, across the Han River from Kaesong. A doctor corrected the hearing problem that he had lived with since childhood. He said he cried that day.
He missed his parents deeply. He had enrolled in a vocational school, as part of the resettlement program that the South offers to defectors, but he said he quit and found work, hoping to send money to his family, as defectors often do through middlemen in China.
Off camera, according to the friend with the YouTube channel, Mr. Kim confided that he was being investigated by the police because another defector had accused him of raping her. He said that he had been so drunk on the night in question that he couldn’t remember anything. The police in Gimpo confirmed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest.
On July 18, officials say, Mr. Kim sent his last text message to the friend with the YouTube channel: “I really didn’t want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me,” he wrote. “I will repay my debt to you no matter where I live, as long as I live.”
South Korean officials concluded that Mr. Kim then crossed the border by crawling through a drain, three feet in diameter, that runs underneath barbed-wire fences on Ganghwa’s north shore. That led him to the Han River, which they believe he swam back across.
[New York Times]