SEOUL, South Korea — The person observed crossing the heavily fortified border from South Korea into North Korea last week is presumed to be a North Korean who had previously defected to the South, Seoul’s defense ministry said on Monday.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had said it carried out a search operation after detecting the person on Saturday on the eastern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
“The authorities presume the person is a North Korean defector and are in the process of verifying related facts,” the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement.
The defector is believed to be a man who used his experience as a gymnast to cross border fences and defect to the South across the DMZ in the same area in November 2020, Yonhap news agency reported, without identifying him.
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The border crossing, which is illegal in South Korea, came as North Korea carries out strict anti-coronavirus measures since shutting borders in early 2020, though it has not confirmed any infections.
While thousands of North Koreans have settled in the South, crossings of the DMZ are rare, with most defectors making their way through China.
Defections from South to North across the DMZ are rarer still, with just a handful recorded in recent years.
However, several recent incidents have raised concerns in South Korea over security lapses or delayed responses by troops guarding the border.
When the suspected defector crossed from North Korea in 2020, he was not detained until 14 hours after he crossed the border, prompting a vow from South Korea’s military to beef up security.
In Saturday’s case, the person’s presence near the border went unnoticed for nearly three hours after CCTV cameras recorded the person scaling a fence and tripping alarms, the military said in a briefing on Sunday.
South Korean troops launched a search operation after spotting the person at 9:20 p.m., but could not stop their crossing into the North at around 10:40 p.m.
In June, South Korea announced it would fast-track the acquisition of a rail-mounted robot, and an artificial intelligence-enabled video and audio system, to strengthen security along the border.