A doctor disseminates information about the Covid-19 coronavirus to people in a waiting room at the Pyongchon District People's Hospital in Pyongyang on April 1, 2020. Photo: AFP/Kim Won Jin

South Korea confirmed Monday the defection of a man northward who has been described as North Korea’s first Covid-19 case.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a regular briefing Monday, said they had discovered where the man crossed the border on Ganghwa Island, which lies just south of the inter-Korean border and off South Korea’s east coast in the Yellow Sea.

The man evaded South Korean troops on the island and escaped to North Korea, probably by swimming, they said.

North Korean state media announced on Sunday that a defector from the South had arrived in the country on July 19 with Covid-19, and as a result, the North Korean border city of Kaesong was now in lockdown.

Even though North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders against pandemic-struck China in January, Sunday’s statement was the North’s first public admission of a Covid-19 case.

Remarkably, the man was a double defector, according to both North Korea’s Korea Central News Agency and South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. He first defected to the South, across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), by swimming in 2017 before returning to the North on July 18 or 19. He was thought to have swum back across the DMZ.

That makes him one of a tiny handful of people who have managed to cross the tense, heavily-fortified and extensively patrolled border. The majority of defectors escape via China where the border is more porous, barely militarized and is widely used by legal traders and smugglers.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs said the 24-year-old man – who left a bag on the beach which South Korean troops found – had used a drain to cross below wire fences and then crossed the water into North Korea.

The red marker is on the island the man is believed to have crossed into North Korea from. Credit: Google Maps

Ganghwa lies in the Yellow Sea in the estuary of the Han River, which flows through Seoul. The mountainous, 300 square kilometer island, lies only one hour’s drive from the center of the capital and is a popular spot from where South Korean tourists can gaze into North Korea from lookout points.

The island’s northernmost coastline is de facto part of the DMZ and is, naturally, heavily militarized and patrolled. But the channel between the northernmost point of the island and mainland North Korea is only a few hundred meters wide and easily navigable by a strong swimmer.

Ganghwa is approximately 15kms from the Northern city of Kasesong, which is now under lockdown.

South Korean media reports state the defector was under police investigation for the alleged rape of a fellow North Korean defector, suggesting a possible motive for his escape back to the North.

He has so far only been identified by his surname Kim, a name he shares with approximately 20% of the population, and is said to be 24-years-old, according to South Korean media. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency published a photo, but with the man’s features entirely pixelated out.

Students wearing face masks disinfect their hands and undergo a temperature check as they arrive for a lecture on preventative measures against Covid-19 at the Pyongyang University of Medicine in Pyongyang on April 22. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

If Kim did catch Covid-19 in South Korea, he is one of a tiny minority. South Korea, with 51 million people, had recorded only 14,175 infections as of Monday afternoon.

Moreover, he was a resident of Gimpo, an airport suburb of Seoul, which last recorded a Covid-19 case on July 14, and that case was imported from abroad, said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul think tank The Asan Institute.

Yet in North Korea, the man could provide the Pyongyang regime with the perfect whipping boy on which to publicly blame a Covid-19 outbreak, Go suggested.

“I think putting everything together, they are trying to make a narrative to scapegoat South Korea and paint all defectors as untrustworthy – they carry the virus,” Go told Asia Times. “They are trying to use this case as propaganda.”

A total of 33,658 North Koreans have defected South, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification. Many struggle to adjust to the vastly different systems south of the DMZ, and a tiny handful have re-defected North.

“In the last re-defection case in 2017, they used it to show that South Korea has all these bright and shiny things, but it is a capitalist hell,” Go said. “They also showed that Kim Jong Un is not vindictive, but welcomed back those who betrayed their motherland.”

Given that it took Pyongyang seven days to release information about Kim, the timing of his re-defection could be his downfall, Go surmised.

“I think that there was a decision in Pyongyang to blame South Korea and to show the people in North Korea that they are surrounded by all these countries that are not just antagonistic, but also infected,” he said.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kukmin University, told Asia Times that North Korea’s authoritarian state, which can control population movement and undertake harsh quarantine measures without worrying about public pushback, is well suited to combat pandemics.

Even so, few believe North Korea has been completely virus free until now. Indeed, one theory for the minimal public appearances by state leader Kim Jong Un this year is his possible fear of the virus. Due to his obesity, he is at particular risk from the disease.

A tourist lookout point on Ganghwa Island with the North Korean coast in the background. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

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