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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on July 27)

All News 07:02 July 27, 2020

Defector's return to North
Authorities hit for not detecting border crossing

The news about a North Korean defector's return to his home country is somewhat shocking. It is all the more so because South Korean authorities could have prevented the incident if they had paid more attention to what went wrong for him.

The episode became known Sunday when the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that its leader Kim Jong-un convened an emergency politburo meeting of the Workers' Party and adopted a "maximum emergency system" against the COVID-19 pandemic after a defector returned to the North from the South with suspected coronavirus symptoms. The KCNA added the defector arrived at the border city of Gaeseong, July 19, after crossing the heavily fortified military demarcation line, which bisects the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea's military authorities cannot avoid criticism for not keeping a close watch on the border if his alleged return is true. Seoul has yet to confirm the KCNA report, but the South's semiofficial Yonhap News Agency reported that a 24-year-old man, who fled to the South by swimming in 2017, was presumed to have swum back to the North. It also said the defector, identified by the family name Kim and living in Gimpo, west of Seoul, had been under police investigation over suspicions of raping a female defector last month. He faced an imminent arrest on the charges.

Yonhap also quoted an acquaintance of Kim as claiming the defector told him that he would go back to the North in mid-July. The man, also a defector, reported Kim's plan to the police July 18, but the report was ignored. If the acquaintance's claim is true, the police should be held accountable for their negligence. Defectors are subject to police protection for their personal security for five years after they finish three months of resettlement education upon their arrival in the South.

The South's military is also under attack. It has begun an investigation to confirm how Kim crossed the demarcation line without being caught. There must have been a big hole in its readiness posture and surveillance network. The military has often been accused of lacking discipline and failing to thwart attempts by North Koreans and Chinese aboard small boats to penetrate into South Korea. In June 2019, a wooden boat carrying four North Koreans arrived at a port on the South's east coast without being detected. This case raised a serious question about the armed forces' capability.

The Moon Jae-in government should take radical measures to better manage North Korean defectors and stop anyone from making an illegal bid to go back to the North. It also must strive to boost military discipline and its vigilance in border areas.

For the North, it must be good news that any defector returns of their own free will. The Kim regime has often called on defectors to return home. It has even demanded that the South send them back, claiming that many of them were "abducted" by South Korean agents, or brought here against their will.

It appears that the Kim regime is trying to tighten its grip on power and its control on North Koreans by using COVID-19. The North has so far claimed that it has had no cases of infections. But it set a national emergency system in motion since it shut down its borders, especially with China, in January when the virus began to spread globally. The defector's case, if confirmed, would be the first officially confirmed coronavirus case in North Korea.

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