Person Who Crossed Into N. Korea Likely Previous Defector, South Says

The person who crossed the heavily fortified border from South Korea into North Korea last week is said to be a North Korean defector, according to Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense. While border-crossing is illegal in South Korea, the person managed to escape into South Korea back in 2020 and was able to return across the border into North Korea last week without being noticed.

“The authorities presume the person is a North Korean defector and are in the process of verifying related facts,” said the Ministry of National Defense in a statement. “We are sorry for causing concerns to the people,” said the chairman of South Korea’s joint chief of staff to lawmakers on Wednesday. “We will make every effort so there is no recurrence of similar incidents.” At the same hearing, Defense Minister Suh Wook also confirmed that the defector was a former North Korean gymnast. According to the New York Times, other North Korean defectors identified the gymnast as 29-year-old Kim Woo-joo. President Moon Jae-in’s government has also shared that they have found no evidence of espionage involved in the situation.

There has been some speculation from credible news sources that claimed the reason the border-crosser returned to North Korea was the lack of financial assistance and social support. It has been documented that defectors are often treated as second-class citizens in the South. According to the New York Times, a quarter of North Korean defectors are currently receiving government subsidies due to being in the lowest income bracket. In a survey researching their experiences, it was found that most defectors earn only 70% of the national average. Without financial assistance to build a better life for themselves in such a competitive and capitalist country, many may better understand why returning to a familiar place with family can be so desirable.

A unique part of this situation is that the man who crossed the border last week came through the DMZ, which is incredibly rare. Most defectors often come through China to settle in South Korea. Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, the North’s Chinese border lockdown has made the annual number of defectors fall from 3,000 to only 229 in 2020. Since the Koreas split back in 1945, over 34,000 North Korean defectors are said to have fled to the South.

The South Korean government has been humiliated by the situation that took place last week and has promised to increase military spending and security since the incident. Yet, the situation at hand raises other red flags outside of border security. Many are left to question the type of aid and support defectors are provided with. Is there more that can be done to provide defectors with the means to escape poverty?