Embarrassment in South Korea after refugee returns to North Korea

The South Korean authorities may have identified, on Monday, January 3, the man who crossed the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on New Year’s Day heading north – a passage that questions the man’s motives and the DMZ monitoring. “It could be an individual in his thirties, passed to the South in November 2020, by the DMZ in the province of Gangwon [est du pays] », the army said.

The refugee, who lived modestly, was later reportedly employed in a cleaning company. He would not be a spy, according to the military. However, the latter could not explain the presence of four soldiers from the North near the demarcation line at the time of his passage.

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North Korean soldiers are instructed to “Shoot on sight” in the event of an attempt to cross the border, the fight against defections and prevention of Covid-19 oblige. In September 2020, North Korean sailors shot dead in the Yellow Sea an official from the South Korean fisheries ministry who was trying to defect to the North. And on the arrival in Kaesong (North) of a defector who fled the South in June 2020, North Korea had cordoned off the city and alerted to a potential health risk, arguing the entry into its territory of a “Suspicious case of Covid-19”.

Beyond the fate reserved for the man who left on the 1is January, Seoul wonders about its motivations. Since 2011, around thirty refugees have returned to the North. Some have reportedly been kidnapped or blackmailed by Pyongyang agents – leader Kim Jong-un has called on his services to do everything in their power to bring those who fled back to the country.

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Others have acted voluntarily, often because of difficulties of adaptation in a South Korean society where many suffer from discrimination and precariousness. “I feel uncomfortable in South Korea. If there is no respect, the money is useless ”, thus declared Kwon Chol-nam, a refugee plagued by professional difficulties and suspected of espionage, at the site NK News in 2017. He had demonstrated for months to obtain the right to return to the North.

Difficult to monitor area

Another source of embarrassment for the South concerns the path chosen by the refugee. Some 33,800 North Koreans have arrived in the South since the 1990s. However, crossings through the DMZ remain rare and perilous. This no-man’s land 4 kilometers wide and 248 kilometers long has divided the peninsula since the Korean War (1950-1953), interrupted by a simple armistice. Bristling with barbed wire and watchtowers, strewn with minefields and placed under the close surveillance of patrols, cameras and various sensors, the DMZ concentrates more than 1 million over-armed soldiers, in the North as in the South.

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On New Year’s Day, the warning systems spotted the man, but the South Korean military of the 22e infantry division did not react until several hours later. Hence questions about the vigilance of the soldiers on duty in the heart of the harsh local winter.

The case reminds us that the east of the DMZ, which is more difficult to monitor because of its mountainous nature, is the area recording the most passages from North to South and vice versa. In 2012, a North Korean soldier crossed barbed wire without being spotted and had to knock on the doors of barracks in the south to signal himself. In November 2020, the defector – the one who would have left on New Year’s Day – was found in the South a day after crossing the DMZ, also passing over the barbed wire. To justify the “Ease” with which he had crossed the area, he then presented himself as a “Gymnast”. These passages result in the sanctions of the generals of the infantry division, ironically called the “cemetery of the stars”.

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Embarrassment in South Korea after refugee returns to North Korea

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