SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A defector was suspected of evading South Korean border guards by going through a drainage ditch and swimming back to North Korea, in a crossing that escalated tensions on the peninsula and led Pyongyang to lock down a city on coronavirus fears.
The 24-year-old man is thought to have evaded detection by passing through a barbed wire-blocked ditch and entering a Han River estuary to the sea to the west, then swimming back to North Korea, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Kim Jun-rak told a media briefing on Monday (July 27).
The man was under police investigation over allegations of rape, according to Gyeonggi Nambu provincial police agency. The defector, who had fled to South Korea in 2017, was booked without physical detention last month for sexually assaulting a woman in his home, police added.
The man, who hasn't been formally named, doesn't appear to have been infected with Covid-19, the South Korean health authorities said at a separate briefing on Monday. It is not known how far the man may have swum but the journey could have covered several kilometres.
The crossing comes as North Korea has excoriated South Korean President Moon Jae-in over defector-led activist groups in South Korea sending anti-Kim Jong Un leaflets by balloon north across the border.
Last month Mr Kim's regime blew up a joint liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong that was a symbol of Mr Moon's rapprochement and told Seoul that it was "high time" to break ties.
Mr Kim Jong Un ordered Kaesong locked down after officials found a person who may be infected with the coronavirus, the state's Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday.
The report adds to speculation that the virus has reached North Korea even though the regime has yet to confirm a single case of Covid-19. US and Japanese officials have said they suspect that North Korea has cases.
The person illegally returned to North Korea on July 19, prompting the government to launch a probe into the military unit responsible for the crossing, with plans to "administer a severe punishment", the KCNA report said.
Eleven North Korean defectors have returned home from South Korea since 2015, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported the Unification Ministry as saying.
North Korea shut its borders in January due to the virus, slamming the brakes on the little legal trade it was afforded due to global sanctions to punish it for its nuclear arms programme. The closing further squeezed a moribund economy set for its biggest contraction in more than two decades, according to Fitch Solutions.
"if the defector is in fact the cause for the Kaesong lockdown, then North Korea doesn't need to deny infections any more and can blame its epidemic on defectors and imported cases from South Korea," said Mr Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser on North-east Asia and nuclear policy for the International Crisis Group.
KCNA said the person had defected to South Korea three years ago, but didn't provide details on how it was possible to return across a border guarded by tens of thousands of military personnel.
Mr Moon has kept on track his plans to provide economic assistance to North Korea but Pyongyang has shown no interest in the President's offers. It has been able to receive help from its traditional allies China and Russia for virus prevention.
Even though Mr Moon may try to use this incident to offer humanitarian assistance, the inter-Korean stalemate is likely to remain, said Dr Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
"This would act as a barrier, not a catalyst for inter-Korean exchanges," Dr Choi said.