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To Attain South Korea, He Risked His Life. To Depart It, He Did It Once more.

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 in depth manhunt. The person 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 Yr’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, generally 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 accomplish that by crossing it immediately (most undergo China), and it’s even rarer for a defector to return that approach.

“We’re sorry for inflicting issues to the folks,” Gen. Received In-choul, the chairman of South Korea’s joint chiefs of workers, advised lawmakers on Wednesday. “We are going to make each effort so there isn’t a recurrence of comparable incidents.”

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

They stated he had few pals, and his motive for going dwelling 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 collection 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 japanese 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 alter 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 pc display, missed it. Sensors on the fence triggered an alarm, however a first-response workforce dominated that nothing was amiss.

Hours later, at the hours of darkness, the army’s thermal remark units detected the person deep contained in the DMZ, on his solution to North Korea.

Of the roughly 34,000 North Koreans who’ve defected to South Korea, 30 have mysteriously resurfaced within the North up to now decade. Some are believed to have been blackmailed into returning. Others have fled criminal charges in South Korea.

Nonetheless others are thought to have gone again as a result of, after rising up in North Korea’s extremely regimented, totalitarian society, they might not alter 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 might 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. On 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 standard route for refugees — had develop into almost not possible due to the coronavirus pandemic. To maintain the virus out, North Korea had vastly tightened its controls at that border, reportedly inserting its guards under “shoot to kill” orders. As an alternative, Mr. Kim crossed the DMZ, the place, South Korean officers, stated his gymnastic abilities helped him climb the tall fences.

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

He made few pals, officers stated. He discovered work at cleansing companies whose staff labored principally at evening 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 may very well be essential. “It’s essential what first jobs they discover within the South and the way they’re handled right here,” she stated. “That’s the place they study whether or not their dream is supported by actuality.”

Their first pals are normally fellow North Koreans, whom they meet throughout the federal government’s 12-week resettlement coaching program. Earlier than the pandemic, when as many as 3,000 defectors had been arriving yearly, these lecture rooms had been full. However with the North’s Chinese language border locked down, solely 229 North Koreans got here to the South in 2020, the yr Mr. Kim defected.

“He had few classmates and few pals,” 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 underneath restrictions through the pandemic.

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

Almost 1 / 4 of North Korean defectors — six instances the nationwide common — are receiving authorities subsidies for primary requirements as a result of they’re within the lowest revenue bracket. These amongst them who earn wages make 70 p.c of the nationwide common, in accordance with a survey of 407 defectors carried out final yr by the Seoul-based Information Heart for North Korean Human Rights.

Thirty-five p.c of these defectors reported experiencing despair and despair, and 18.5 p.c 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 motive many sad defectors endure life within the South is that they will get monetary savings and ship it to their households within the North by way of middlemen in China, who normally cost a 30 p.c payment. However non permanent jobs like those held by many defectors had been among the many first to be lower by employers because the pandemic raged.

Dwelling alone in a tiny, $117-a-month condo 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 assist the North Korean refugees resettle after they first arrive, however we now have been miserly in serving to them discover jobs and make their life right 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 skin world, stated Lee Min-bok, a longtime North Korean refugee.

“They’re strangers to the sudden freedom within the South, discovering it tougher than life in North Korea, which is basically a jail,” Mr. Lee stated. “The ostracism they really feel within the South isn’t a lot completely different from the discrimination ex-prisoners endure on the skin.”

The tradition shock is very onerous for the few who cross the DMZ. Many defectors spend years residing in China, which is much extra open to the world than North Korea is. By the point 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 usually used returning defectors for propaganda, releasing movies and articles during which they describe a hellish life within the capitalist South.

Mr. Kim left few traces behind. On 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 dwelling discovered it empty, with a neatly folded blanket put exterior for the rubbish collector to select up.

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