SEOUL, South Korea – The person spotted crossing the heavily fortified border from South Korea to North Korea last week is believed to be a North Korean who previously defected to the south, the Seoul Department of Defense said Monday.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said they carried out a search operation after discovering the person on Saturday on the east side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas.
“The authorities assume that the person is a North Korean defector and are in the process of verifying the relevant facts,” said a statement from the Defense Ministry.
The defector is believed to be a man who used his gymnastics experience to cross border fences and overflow south via the DMZ in the same area in November 2020, reported the Yonhap news agency, without identifying him.
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The illegal border crossing in South Korea came when North Korea has been implementing strict anti-coronavirus measures since the borders were closed in early 2020, despite no confirmed infections.
While thousands of North Koreans have settled in the south, DMZ crossings are rare, and most defectors make their way across China.
Defects from south to north in the DMZ are even rarer, only a handful have been recorded in recent years.
However, several recent incidents in South Korea have raised concerns about security vulnerabilities or delayed responses from troops guarding the border.
When the alleged defector crossed from North Korea in 2020, he wasn’t arrested until 14 hours after crossing the border, leading to a vow by the South Korean military to strengthen security.
In the case of Saturday, the presence of the person near the border went unnoticed for nearly three hours after CCTV cameras recorded the person climbing a fence and setting off alarms, the military said in a briefing on Sunday.
The South Korean troops launched a search after spotting the person at 9:20 p.m., but were unable to stop their passage to the north at around 10:40 p.m.
In June, South Korea announced it would accelerate the acquisition of a rail-mounted robot and an artificial intelligence video and audio system to increase security along the border.