South Korean military captures North Korean who crosses armed border in potential defection

A photo from Dec 15, 2020, shows a North Korean guard post over a South Korean military fence from the border city of Paju. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea's military said on Tuesday it had captured a North Korean individual who crossed the heavily fortified border between the two countries in a rare potential defection amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The person was found on Tuesday morning near a checkpoint on the eastern side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the rival Koreas, prompting an urgent search operation, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

"We have taken that unidentified individual into custody and are conducting an investigation," the JCS said in a statement.

The rare border crossing came as North Korea's prolonged lockdowns rolled back the number of defectors arriving in South Korea to an all-time low last year.

Some 200 North Koreans settled in the South last year, down around 80 per cent from 2019, Unification Minister Lee In-young has said, citing the reclusive state's shutdown of its frontiers in January 2020.

The last publicly known case was in November when a North Korean man defected to the South via the eastern DMZ.

Cross-border ties soured after denuclearisation talks between Pyongyang and Washington stalled since 2019.

A spat simmered in September after North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official who went missing at sea, fanning public and political uproar in the South.

In July, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an emergency and sealed off a border town after a person with Covid-19 symptoms illegally crossed the border into the North from the South.

North Korea has not confirmed any Covid-19 cases, though Seoul officials have cast doubt on there being zero cases citing the country's active exchanges with China, where the virus first emerged, prior to its border closure.

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