We may have rushed to judgment over the weekend when we reported on what appeared to be the first public confirmation of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19 within North Korea’s borders. When we read the story, reported by KCNA, the North Korean state news agency (fortunately they publish in English), we found it stretched the bounds of credulity.
The North Korean government claimed the reason for the lockdown on the border area between North and South Korea was a defector who had left the country years ago had sneaked back across the border from South Korea, carrying COVID-19 with him.
It is said that, sometimes, truth can be stranger than fiction (somebody said that once. We forget who. But we digress). Needless to say, we were surprises when we saw the following Reuters headline: “Escape to North Korea: Defector at heart of COVID-19 case fled sex abuse investigation”.
So, you’re telling me that somebody who had the temerity and good fortune to survive the exceedingly dangerous trip across the DMZ – over fences sheathed in barbed wire, and fields and fens littered with mines and other unpleasant surprises – was crazy enough to sneak back in to North Korea? What could possibly motivate somebody to do something so seemingly absurd?
According to Reuters, the defector – who was barely 21 when he fled North Korea 3 years ago – was fleeing charges that he sexually assaulted another North Korean defector during a meeting in a private residence.
SEOUL (Reuters) – Last week, 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.
Things only get weirder from there.
South Korea has identified the man only by his surname, Kim, and said he was 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.
South Korean military chief Park Han-ki told parliament on Tuesday that Kim, who is 163 cm (5.35 ft) tall and weighs 54 kg (119 lb), cut his way through barbed wire fences installed at the end of the pipe leading to the river.
A Seoul official told Reuters that Kim is believed to have taken a similar path when he defected to the South in 2017, and authorities say he scoped out the area earlier in July, apparently in preparation.
Kim’s story as a defector begins and, so far, ends in the city of Kaesong, a North Korean border town that hosted a now-shuttered inter-Korean factory park and liaison office.
When that industrial project was shut down amid rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme in 2016, the economic shock prompted Kim to try his luck in the South in 2017, he said in a YouTube video filmed with a fellow defector in South Korea in June.
Rather than make his way through China, as the vast majority of North Korean defectors usually do, Kim headed south via the porous sea border toward the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas.
“After passing through barbed-wire fences, I encountered minefields, which I bypassed and came to a reed field near the Han River where I stayed hidden for about three hours,” he said in the video, adding that he was living off mere bread crumbs.
He started swimming, following the lights on the southern bank of the river. When he finally made land, he let out a cry for help, and was found by a unit of South Korean soldiers.
But it wasn’t just charges of rape that motivated the young man to flee. He reportedly owed nearly $17k in debt to a fellow defector.
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.
So this guy went through all the trouble of sneaking into North Korea just to crawl through a sewage-filled drain pipe back into North Korea, where he presumably will be blown to pieces by an anti-aircraft gun for showing such profound disrespect to the dear leader. If he’s especially unlucky, they’ll blame him for the entire outbreak. COVID-19 has probably been circulating in North Korea for months. But in the official history of the Worker’s Party, the South Korean aggressors sent this traitorous defector to poison the country and undermine the regime.
What this Kim guy did – that’s like Andy Dufresne hitchhiking all the way back from Mexico just to crawl back up the drain pipe into his old cell.