(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 4-12, 2nd photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, July 27 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean defector is believed to have swum across the border from the western island of Gwanghwa after going through a drain under barbed wire fences to evade South Korean border guards, military officials said Monday.
The border crossing by the 24-year-old man was made known after North Korea revealed Sunday that a "runaway" returned home in the border city of Kaesong with coronavirus symptoms and leader Kim Jong-un blocked off the entire city and implemented a state of emergency to prevent the virus from spreading.
"We spotted the specific location from which he fled to the North on Ganghwa Island, as a bag believed to belong to the man was found," JCS spokesperson Col. Kim Jun-rak told a regular briefing.
He appears to have passed through a drain under barbed wire fences to evade border guards, and the drain leads to a Han River estuary adjacent to the Yellow Sea, the officer said, apparently suggesting that the man swam back to his homeland.
In 2017, the man fled to South Korea by swimming to the island of Gyodong near Ganghwa.
Advanced surveillance equipment, such as thermal observation devices (TODs), are set up along the border in the Ganghwa region, which is only a few kilometers away from the North Korean territory. The authorities said they have not spotted any traces of the fences on the ground being cut.
South Korea's military came under fire for failing to detect the crossing.
"After thorough investigations, we will take necessary measures and explain all the details," Kim added.
The man arrived on Ganghwa Island by taxi on around July 18, though exactly when he fled through the waterway is under investigation, according to Seoul officials. The North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that he returned July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line.
The South's health authorities said that the defector does not appear to have contracted COVID-19.
Police said they secured tips last week that he was planning to return to the North and banned him from leaving the country. He had been under investigation over suspicions of raping a female defector last month.
"The military, police and the related authorities are closely working to learn all the details of this incident," a government official said.
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