North declares state of emergency, claims returning defector brought Covid across the border
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus pandemic, state media announced Sunday, reportedly after a defector to the South returned across the military demarcation line last week carrying the virus.
The “runaway,” as regime mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the defector, went to South Korea three years ago but returned to the North’s border city of Kaesong on July 19 “after illegally crossing the demarcation line.”
Several medical checkups on the person yielded “an uncertain result,” KCNA said, but prompted examinations and quarantine for all Kaesong residents who came in contact with the person.
This was the first time Pyongyang officially acknowledged a potential coronavirus infection on its territory, after insisting since the pandemic’s onset early this year that it has had no cases.
South Korean officials scrambled to verify the North’s claim, with the military commenting eight hours following the publication of KCNA report that there was a “high likelihood” that an individual did cross the inter-Korean border into the North.
The figure suspected by the South Korean military as the most likely returnee is a 24-year-old male defector resettled in Gimpo, Gyeonggi, with the surname Kim. The military is examining possible routes he may have taken to cross the border, believing he most likely swam through a sea channel from South Korea’s Gyodong Island to the North’s South Hwanghae Province, which are just 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) apart at their closest point.
With Kaesong in a “dangerous situation” that “may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster," KCNA said Kim Jong-un ordered the city be blocked off from access, and on Saturday convened an emergency Political Bureau meeting of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
Presiding over the meeting, Kim “declared a state of emergency in the relevant area and clarified the determination of the Party Central Committee to shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert,” the report said.
Participants of the meeting “unanimously adopted” the decision to scale up the country’s alert system to maximum emergency, though what such a designation entailed was not immediately clear from KCNA’s report.
Kim further stressed the need to enforce “tough organization discipline” throughout the country, in which “everyone absolutely obeys and moves as one under the baton of the Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters.”
Many of the antiviral emergency measures outlined by Kim, like the blockade of an entire city, were unprecedented, suggesting the extent to which officials fear the devastation the virus can potentially wreak on the country’s ill-equipped health care system.
That inadequacy was why the regime was so quick to shut down its border with China and Russia early on in January, as well as force thousands of people, including foreigners, into weeks-long isolation.
For months afterwards, as its neighbors in China and South Korea were enduring some of the worst early outbreaks of the coronavirus, Pyongyang claimed success in preventing infections on its soil, though international experts doubted such assertions.
Perhaps more notable than the acknowledgement of exposure to the virus is the claim that it came from a person who had previously defected to South Korea but had returned through the heavily fortified inter-Korean border.
The KCNA report was initially viewed with skepticism in Seoul, as a crossing by land would have had the person traversing some of the most dangerous territory in the world, ridden with minefields and armed soldiers on both sides.
But military officials in South Korea believe the defector in question, Kim, did not cross by land but likely took a sea route, not unlike the one he took when he first defected to the South by swimming through a channel crossing to Ganghwa Island on the mouth of the Han River three years ago in 2017. Kim is also believed to have been a native of Kaesong.
The military is examining surveillance footage and the state of preparedness across the front, said Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
According to Gimpo police, Kim was under criminal investigation for rape after being booked by local police last month. He is believed to have forced himself upon a fellow defector woman he knew after inviting her to his house for drinks.
Kim is also confirmed to have visited Gyodong Island before his escape, likely to explore possible routes.
According to the KCNA report, Saturday’s Politburo meeting dealt with “the issue of loose guard performance in the frontline area where the runaway to the south occurred,” deciding an “intensive investigation” would be conducted of the military unit involved, complete with “severe punishment” meted towards those responsible.
The possibility a person infiltrated South Korea’s maritime border surveillance shook Seoul’s military, which is likely to generate controversy about the state of security and vigilance on the ever-precarious border between the two Koreas.
All defectors from the North who are resettled in South Korea are overseen by the Unification Ministry, which is likely to conduct a review of all those who entered the country three years ago.
More than 33,000 people from North Korea have been resettled in South Korea as of 2019, according to the Korea Hana Foundation, a public organization under the Unification Ministry tasked with helping defectors begin a new life in the South.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]