July 27, 2020 11:00
North Korea announced on Sunday that a defector who had left for South Korea three years ago returned over the border again and is suspected of carrying coronavirus.
The South Korean military said it is verifying the report but did not deny it.
The official Rodong Sinmun daily said a "runaway" who was "suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line."
It added, "The person was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine."
The daily also said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened a politburo meeting Saturday and declared "a state of emergency" in the affected area.
But there is little chance that a person with coronavirus could have swum for hours across the river into the North, and North Korea may be attempting to blame South Korea for the worsening epidemic there.
The defector is believed to be a man in his 20s who arrived in South Korea in June 2017. He lived in the Seoul suburb of Gimpo and was being investigated for sexually assaulting a female acquaintance.
Police in Gimpo obtained intelligence in early July suggesting that Kim could return to North Korea and obtained an arrest warrant in mid-July but apparently failed to stop him from returning to the North. He apparently scouted Gimpo and Gangwha Isand to look for a route to return to the North, just ahead of his defection. Police do not believe he is infected with the virus.
Cho Han-bum at the Korea Institute for National Unification said, "It is questionable whether a person with coronavirus could swim for hours to get to North Korea. There is a strong possibility that North Korean authorities are distorting the truth."
North Korea may be using the incident also as an excuse to shift the blame from mounting discontent over prolonged economic woes. North Korea has claimed zero coronavirus infections and may have found it difficult to hide the increasing spread of the virus, so it is trying to blame South Korea.
One source said, "Coronavirus infections have been spreading in Pyongyang and Hwanghae Province since May, so it has become difficult to maintain the pretense."
The government here said it could consider making an extradition request after "considering various circumstances." But chilled cross-border relations have made it impossible to raise the subject of defectors.
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