A 24-year-old defector returned to North Korea the way he left in 2017, authorities say, but with a coronavirus pandemic raging in the background this time, his illicit trip drew far more attention. South Korea has identified the man only by his surname, Kim, and identified him as the “runaway” who North Korea accuses of illegally crossing their shared border last week with symptoms of COVID-19.
Facing a sexual assault investigation, Kim evaded high-tech South Korean border control systems by crawling through a drain pipe and swimming across the Han River to the North on July 19, the South Korean military has said. He appears to have spent several days there before being caught in the city of Kaesong, a North Korean border town.
Little is known about how Kim made a living in South Korea, but a source with knowledge of his background told Reuters that he owed 20 million won ($16,800) to at least one fellow defector from Kaesong. “He had expressed his wish to become a security lecturer for students, like many other defectors do, but it never happened, partly because of the pandemic,” the source said on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
According to police, a female defector in her 20s filed a complaint on June 12, accusing Kim of sexually assaulting her at his home. They interviewed him once on June 21, and he denied the accusations.
The investigation gathered steam when one of Kim’s acquaintances reported to police on July 19 that he threatened the woman and planned to flee to the North, a police official said. A warrant for Kim’s arrest was issued two days later, but according to North Korean state media, he had already arrived there.
By July 24, North Korean authorities had found him in Kaesong, and said he displayed COVID-19 symptoms. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the city be locked down and declared a state of emergency.
South Korean health officials said there was no sign that Kim was infected with the coronavirus before he left the South, and at least two people who were in close contact with him have tested negative.