Security officials believe the man who “re-defected” to North Korea by sneaking through the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on New Year’s Day was the same person who sneaked into South Korea in 2020.
Security surveillance reportedly captured an unidentified man crawling over a barbed-wire fence at the southern part of the border and entering North Korean territory on Saturday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a statement on Monday, The Associated Press reported.
The man, who was first reported missing on Dec. 30, has been described by the South Korean military to be in his early 30s, CBS reported. He reportedly worked as a cleaner in South Korea after he defected in November 2020.
Although the exact identity of the defector remains unknown, officials said his description matches that of a former gymnast who jumped the fence to enter South Korea in November 2020. The defector managed to sneak past detection despite several hours of searching by South Korean soldiers on Saturday, BBC reported.
A ministry official said four people were detected by a thermal observation device. It is possible that three of the four people were North Korean soldiers intending on seizing the defector. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said that while North Korea has acknowledged its messages asking for the status of the defector through a military communication hotline, North Korea failed to elaborate on the man’s condition.
South Korean media outlets have claimed that the man, had “economic difficulties” and failed to adjust to his new life in South Korea. South Korea’s Defense Ministry has yet to confirm these claims, but it has said that the man was not “engaged in espionage or other suspicious activities.” The ministry also did not mention potential reasons behind the man’s return to North Korea.
It is well documented, however, that many North Korean defectors struggle with adjusting to life in the South. Ji Seong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker who had also defected from the North, wrote about the difficulties in a Facebook post from Monday, claiming that 56% of defectors are from lower income groups while 25% are recipients of basic livelihood security.
Police in Nowon District in Seoul offered to protect and care for him after they became concerned that he would re-defect back in June 2021. There was a lack of concrete evidence, so no further action was taken by police, according to Yonhap news agency.
A cross-border affairs official said the re-defector was also given personal safety, housing, medical treatment and employment.
Neighbors in South Korea say the man did not interact with them much, and saw him putting his possessions in the trash one day before he went across the border.
“He was taking out a mattress and bedding to garbage dumps on that morning, and it was strange because they were all too new,” a neighbor told Yonhap. “I thought about asking him to give it to us, but ended up not doing that, because we’ve never said hi to each other.”
This recent incident has reignited past criticisms against the South Korean military’s level of security in the DMZ with its border that is 248 kilometers (155 miles) in length and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) in width.