North Korea Defector Crosses DMZ Border Twice

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North Korea Defector Crosses DMZ Border Twice

On New Year’s Day, officials say, the man humiliated the military again by making the trip in reverse, climbing the same fences and crossing the Demilitarized Zone to return to the North.

“We are sorry for causing concerns to the people,” Gen. Won In-choul, the chairman of South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We will make every effort so there is no recurrence of similar incidents.”

They said he had few friends, and his motive for going home was still a mystery on Thursday. Some lawmakers have speculated that he was a spy, but President Moon Jae-in’s government said it had found no evidence of that.

At the same hearing, Defense Minister Suh Wook confirmed that South Korea believed the border-crosser was the former gymnast who defected in 2020. The government has not released his name, but other North Korean defectors have identified him as Kim Woo-joo, 29.

Story Highlights

  • It was one of the South Korean military’s most embarrassing moments in years.

  • His extraordinary feat not only highlighted South Korean security flaws at the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone, known as the DMZ, but raised the bewildering question of why someone would risk his life by crossing it twice. The DMZ is lined with barbed-wire fences, minefields and armed sentries. Few North Koreans who defect to the South do so by crossing it directly (most go through China), and it is even rarer for a defector to return that way.

A series of lapses let him slip through the DMZ, said Lt. Gen. Jeon Dong-jin, who led the army’s investigation into the security breach.

He was first picked up by a military security camera about 1 p.m. on Saturday, as he was walking toward an area just south of the DMZ, in the eastern province of Gangwon, that is off-limits to civilians. A warning was broadcast over loudspeakers, but the military took no further action after the man seemed to change course and head for a nearby village.

Six hours later, he was climbing the first tall fence on the southern edge of the DMZ. Three cameras captured the scene, but a soldier on duty, who was monitoring real-time feeds from nine cameras on a single computer screen, missed it. Sensors on the fence triggered an alarm, but a first-response team ruled that nothing was amiss. Hours later, in the dead of night, the military’s thermal observation devices detected the man deep inside the DMZ, on his way to North Korea.

Of the roughly 34,000 North Koreans who have defected to South Korea, 30 have mysteriously resurfaced in the North in the past decade. Some are believed to have been blackmailed into returning. Others have fled criminal charges in South Korea. Still others are thought to have gone back because, after growing up in North Korea’s highly regimented, totalitarian society, they could not adjust to the hypercompetitive life of the South, where defectors are often treated like second-class citizens. What little is known about Mr. Kim’s life in the South suggests that he may fall into that category.

Fellow defectors say that Mr. Kim, like most North Koreans who come to the South, adopted a new name: Kim Woo-jeong. He appears to have had a hard life in both Koreas, according to officials and lawmakers who received briefings from military and intelligence officials. Like all defectors, Mr. Kim was debriefed by the South Korean government upon arrival. He said he had fled the North to escape an abusive stepfather. At the time, Mr. Kim weighed barely more than 110 pounds; he stood just taller than 4-foot-11.

He made few friends, officials said. He found work at cleaning services whose employees worked mostly at night in empty office buildings. He apparently never socialized with his neighbors. Since Sunday, when reports first emerged of his return to the North, no one in the South has come forward to say that they knew him personally. Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean who lives in Seoul, said that a defector’s early experiences could be crucial. “It’s important what first jobs they find in the South and how they are treated here,” she said. “That’s where they learn whether their dream is supported by reality.”

In South Korea, his life seems to have been a difficult one. Crossing the North’s border with China — the usual route for refugees — had become nearly impossible because of the coronavirus pandemic. To keep the virus out, North Korea had greatly tightened its controls at that border, reportedly placing its guards under “shoot to kill” orders. Instead, Mr. Kim crossed the DMZ, where, South Korean officials said, his gymnastic skills helped him climb the tall fences.