A ‘runaway’ to South Korea is suspected of bringing a coronavirus case back to North Korea after swimming across the border

Kim Jong Un speaks at an event in Pyongyang in July.
Kim Jong Un speaks at an event in Pyongyang in July.

KCNA via Reuters

  • A “runaway” from South Korea is believed to have introduced the first “suspected” coronavirus case to North Korea last week, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

  • South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said that a 24-year-old man, who fled from the North three years ago, evaded border officials by entering a drain and then swimming from Gwanghwa island to North Korea. 

  • In response, Kim Jong Un held an emergency meeting on Saturday and locked down the border city of Kaesong, issued a “top-class alert,” and threatened “severe punishment.”

  • North Korea has held fast to the official narrative that it has no coronavirus cases or fatalities, though South Korean news agencies say it’s had cases as far back as March.

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Kim Jong Un locked down a North Korean city and issued a “top-class alert” after a person suspected of having the coronavirus returned from South Korea, according to multiple reports.

More than 16.2 million people worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, but the historically secretive North Korea has insisted for months that it has no cases.

Kim’s public stance changed on July 19 when a “runaway” who fled to South Korea three years ago “illegally” crossed the Military Demarcation Line and re-entered North Korea, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, according to NK News. The defector is “suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus,” KCNA added.

In response, Kim organized a politburo meeting on Saturday, the BBC reported. He also decided to block off the border city of Kaesong and enforce a “maximum emergency system” in a bid to control the coronavirus, which has killed almost 650,000 people globally, per KCNA.

North Korea’s Supreme Leader is also investigating how the alleged defector was able to cross the border and warned of “severe punishment,” according to the BBC, citing the KCNA.

Citing military officials, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency on Monday reported that the defector is a 24-year-old man who entered a drain under barbed wire fences and then crossed the border by swimming from the island of Gwanghwa to North Korea. It’s unclear when he made the swim.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds an emergency enlarged meeting of Political Bureau of WPK Central Committee in this undated photo released on July 25, 2020 by North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds an emergency enlarged meeting of Political Bureau of WPK Central Committee in this undated photo released on July 25, 2020 by North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.


“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,” Col. Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a briefing, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

The man escaped to South Korea in 2017 in a similar fashion: He swam to the island of Gyodong, Yonhap News Agency reported.

The man is also accused of raping a female defector in June, Yonhap said, adding that he popped up on South Korean police’s radar last week based on tips that he planned to return to the North and was forbidden from doing so. 

According to the BBC, this case is atypical because defectors usually choose to flee across the Chinese border, whereas this man apparently escaped across the highly militarized border, only to return to the North.

South Korean officials, however, believe that there are “high chances” of this illegal border crossing and are investigating the matter, per Yonhap News Agency.

“The military, police and the related authorities are closely working to learn all the details of this incident,” Yonhap reported, citing an unnamed government official.

Meanwhile, NPR said, based on KCNA reports, that the man’s contacts and others who have been in Kaesong in the last five days have been quarantined.

North Korea insists it hasn’t had any coronavirus cases until now

If the defector does indeed have the coronavirus, he will mark North Korea’s first official COVID-19 patient.

By contrast, South Korea has recorded more than 14,100 cases and almost 300 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Local reports indicate that the Hermit Kingdom did not ignore the threat posed by the highly contagious coronavirus. Kim suspended foreign tourism, shut down most of North Korea’s 880-mile border with China, quarantined 10,000 diplomats and residents, enforced the use of face masks, gloves, and temperature checks, and mandated that imported goods be disinfected. 

However, experts doubt that North Korea has remained unscathed by the disease, particularly amid South Korean media reports that almost 200 soldiers died of the coronavirus while several thousand more were quarantined to curb the infection’s spread.

North Korea is threatened by its porous border with China, an absence of medical supplies, and a “crumbling” healthcare system, experts say.

“It’s a lie. Year after year, and in every season, diverse infectious diseases repeatedly occur but North Korea says there isn’t any outbreak,” Choi Jung Hun, a doctor in North Korea during the SARS epidemic, told the Associated Press in April.

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