SEOUL — In November 2020, a North Korean ex-gymnast climbed undetected over 10-foot barbed-wire fences to get into South Korea. When the South belatedly found the breach, it started an intensive manhunt. The man was not discovered till the following day, half a mile south of the world’s most closely armed border.

It was one of many South Korean army’s most embarrassing moments in years.

On New Year’s Day, officers say, the person humiliated the army once more by making the journey in reverse, climbing the identical fences and crossing the Demilitarized Zone to return to the North.

His extraordinary feat not solely highlighted South Korean safety flaws on the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone, often known as the DMZ, however raised the bewildering query of why somebody would threat 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 achieve this by crossing it instantly (most undergo China), and it’s even rarer for a defector to return that means.

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

At the identical listening to, Defense Minister Suh Wook confirmed that South Korea believed the border-crosser was the previous gymnast who defected in 2020. The authorities has not launched his identify, however different North Korean defectors have identified him as Kim Woo-joo, 29.

They stated he had few buddies, and his motive for going house was nonetheless a thriller on Thursday. Some lawmakers have speculated that he was a spy, however President Moon Jae-in’s authorities stated it had discovered no proof of that.

A sequence of lapses let him slip by way of the DMZ, stated Lt. Gen. Jeon Dong-jin, who led the military’s investigation into the safety breach.

He was first picked up by a army safety digital camera about 1 p.m. on Saturday, as he was strolling towards an space simply south of the DMZ, within the jap province of Gangwon, that’s off-limits to civilians. A warning was broadcast over loudspeakers, however the army took no additional motion after the person appeared to vary course and head for a close-by village.

Six hours later, he was climbing the primary tall fence on the southern fringe of the DMZ. Three cameras captured the scene, however a soldier on responsibility, who was monitoring real-time feeds from 9 cameras on a single laptop display, missed it. Sensors on the fence triggered an alarm, however a first-response group dominated that nothing was amiss.

Hours later, in the dark, the army’s thermal statement gadgets detected the person deep contained in the DMZ, on his strategy to North Korea.

Of the roughly 34,000 North Koreans who’ve defected to South Korea, 30 have mysteriously resurfaced within the North prior to now 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 again as a result of, after rising up in North Korea’s extremely regimented, totalitarian society, they may not modify to the hypercompetitive lifetime of the South, the place defectors are sometimes treated like second-class residents. What little is understood about Mr. Kim’s life within the South means that he could fall into that class.

Fellow defectors say that Mr. Kim, like most North Koreans who come to the South, adopted a brand new identify: Kim Woo-jeong. He seems to have had a tough life in each Koreas, in accordance with officers and lawmakers who acquired briefings from army and intelligence officers.

Like all defectors, Mr. Kim was debriefed by the South Korean authorities upon arrival. He stated he had fled the North to flee an abusive stepfather. At the time, Mr. Kim weighed barely greater than 110 kilos; he stood simply taller than 4-foot-11.

Crossing the North’s border with China — the same old route for refugees — had turn into almost unimaginable due to the coronavirus pandemic. To hold the virus out, North Korea had tremendously tightened its controls at that border, reportedly inserting its guards under “shoot to kill” orders. Instead, Mr. Kim crossed the DMZ, the place, South Korean officers stated, his gymnastic expertise helped him climb the tall fences.

In South Korea, his life appears to have been a troublesome one.

He made few buddies, officers stated. He discovered work at cleansing companies whose workers labored principally at night time in empty workplace buildings. He apparently by no means socialized along with his neighbors. Since Sunday, when stories first emerged of his return to the North, nobody within the South has come ahead to say that they knew him personally.

Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean who lives in Seoul, stated {that a} defector’s early experiences could possibly be essential. “It’s important what first jobs they find in the South and how they are treated here,” she stated. “That’s where they learn whether their dream is supported by reality.”

Their first buddies are often fellow North Koreans, whom they meet throughout the federal government’s 12-week resettlement coaching program. Before the pandemic, when as many as 3,000 defectors have been arriving yearly, these lecture rooms have been full. But with the North’s Chinese border locked down, solely 229 North Koreans got here to the South in 2020, the 12 months Mr. Kim defected.

“He had few classmates and few friends,” stated Ahn Chan-il, the chief of a defectors’ group in Seoul. South Korean church buildings, the place many defectors have discovered communities, have been below restrictions throughout the pandemic.

If Mr. Kim was suffering from poverty and loneliness within the South, he was hardly the one defector who felt that means.

Nearly 1 / 4 of North Korean defectors — six occasions the nationwide common — are receiving authorities subsidies for fundamental requirements as a result of they’re within the lowest earnings bracket. Those amongst them who earn wages make 70 % of the nationwide common, in accordance with a survey of 407 defectors performed final 12 months by the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.

Thirty-five % of these defectors reported experiencing melancholy and despair, and 18.5 % stated they’d thought of returning to the North, primarily as a result of they missed their households and hometowns, in accordance with the survey.

One cause many sad defectors endure life within the South is that they’ll get monetary savings and ship it to their households within the North by way of middlemen in China, who often cost a 30 % payment. But momentary jobs like those held by many defectors have been among the many first to be reduce by employers because the pandemic raged.

Living alone in a tiny, $117-a-month residence in northern Seoul, Mr. Kim acquired $418 a month in welfare assist from the federal government. He hardly ever cooked and skimped on gasoline, water and electrical energy, and he had unpaid payments for lease and medical insurance coverage, in accordance with the South Korean information company Yonhap.

“We help the North Korean refugees resettle when they first arrive, but we have been miserly in helping them find jobs and make their life here sustainable,” Park Soo-hyun, Mr. Moon’s senior secretary for public communications, said this week.

For some defectors, the transition to the South is like that skilled by a prisoner, launched after a few years, who can not readjust to the surface world, stated Lee Min-bok, a longtime North Korean refugee.

“They are strangers to the sudden freedom in the South, finding it more difficult than life in North Korea, which is essentially a prison,” Mr. Lee stated. “The ostracism they feel in the South is not much different from the discrimination ex-prisoners suffer on the outside.”

The tradition shock is very onerous for the few who cross the DMZ. Many defectors spend years residing in China, which is way extra open to the world than North Korea is. By the time they arrive to the South, they’ve some thought of what to anticipate.

As of Thursday, North Korea had stated nothing about Mr. Kim’s return. It has typically used returning defectors for propaganda, releasing movies and articles through which they describe a hellish life within the capitalist South.

Mr. Kim left few traces behind. At the fence the place he crossed, investigators discovered skinny footprints and bits of feather, which apparently fell from his winter coat when it was torn by barbed wire. Reporters who went to his house discovered it empty, with a neatly folded blanket put outdoors for the rubbish collector to select up.



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