The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported on Tuesday that, according to a government source, the latest man to escape from North Korea was a professional gymnast and only managed to cross the highly guarded Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) by leaping over a ten-foot fence.
North Korean refugees, typically referred to as “defectors” as the word more literally conforms to the Korean language term used for them, regularly escape the communist dictatorship to flee to the South. Most attempt to do so through the porous Chinese border, often suffering human trafficking, sexual and other physical abuse, and forced to pay large bribes. From China — if they do not get caught and deported — they attempt to make it to South Korea.
A small minority, often border patrol soldiers, attempt to cross the DMZ directly, an extremely dangerous path as the active status of the Korean War means soldiers from both sides are stationed throughout the border prepared to attack potential invaders. While the Korean War began in 1950 and has not resulted in active hostilities between the four parties involved — the two Koreas, China, and the United States — since 1953, neither side surrendered and no one has signed a peace treaty, so it technically continues today.
Extreme Chinese coronavirus lockdown measures in China and North Korea have triggered a significant drop in the number of North Korean defectors leaving the country. American officials have stated they have intelligence that indicates dictator Kim Jong-un has implemented a “shoot-to-kill” order for anyone attempting to cross the border to keep the virus out. Kim insists that North Korea has not documented a single case of Chinese coronavirus within its territory since the pandemic began in December 2019. North Korea shares borders with the homeland of the coronavirus, China, as well as South Korea and Russia, which have endured large outbreaks of the virus.
Most international experts do not believe Pyongyang’s claim of not having any coronavirus cases in the country.
A “military source” speaking to JoongAng Ilbo revealed that a male professional gymnast, reportedly weighing only 110 pounds, crossed the DMZ on November 3, seeking political asylum.
“Weighing only 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and having a slight build, the man was agile enough to leap over the 3-meter-tall (10 feet) fences in the DMZ to reach Goseong County, Gangwon, in the South on Nov. 3, said the source, who asked not to be named,” the newspaper reported. “Heat sensors set up on the border to detect human and animal movements in the area failed to alert the infiltration at the time, leading to questions over the state of border security.”
South Korean officials believe the man’s story that he leaped over the barriers because he performed the same feat in front of them to prove himself, the source said.
JoongAng Ilbo noted that crossings through the DMZ are so rare that it has been over a year since South Korea identified a defector that had made the move; on that occasion, the man was a soldier.
Initial reports on November 4 of a defector along the DMZ only identified the man as a civilian and noted that he was the first known defector into the South since the Chinese coronavirus pandemic began.
General Robert B. Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), noted in September that Pyongyang had ordered strict border closures nationwide, including on the Chinese border, that had significantly devastated its economy. North Korea is under the strictest international sanctions in modern history following its sixth and last nuclear weapons test in 2017. Despite China’s Communist Party supporting the sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, North Korea’s economy heavily depends on illegal smuggling and other business on the Chinese border, along the Yalu River.
“With COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus], that has accelerated the effects of sanctions on North Korea,” Abrams explained in an interview in September. “They closed their border at the end of January. If you just look back at the sanctions in 2017, that dropped Chinese imports by about 50 percent and then they rebounded last year.”
“When the border shut down with COVID-19, it’s dropped imports from China by 85 percent. So there is a cumulative effect economically of COVID with the sanctions and, of course, North Korea smugglers been trying to get across and, as a result, you know, the regime issued out instructions,” Abrams he noted.
He added that soldiers had received strict orders to prevent illegal entry on the borders.
“They’ve got North Korean SOF [special operation forces] manning these things, strike forces, they’ve got shoot-to-kill orders in place, and this is fundamentally about preventing COVID from getting into North Korea,” Abrams said.
In part due to Kim’s focus on fighting the pandemic and rebuilding parts of North Korea devastated by floods this year, “compared to previous years, the reduction in tension is palpable, it’s identifiable, and you can see it,” Abrams noted.
North Korean state media — the only legal form of media in the country — has repeatedly professed Kim Jong-un’s desire to tighten border security, citing the pandemic. Last week, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim had ordered troops to “keep a high alert, build a tight blocking wall and further intensify the anti-epidemic work.”
“Building a flawless blockade of barrier in preparation for the worsening global health pandemic is a critical issue in intensifying the antivirus campaign,” the newspaper asserted, demanding officials “find and block even the slightest room for any possible transmission of the virus.”
As of Wednesday, the state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that communist officials are again “further intensifying the works for strictly carrying out state anti-epidemic measures.” Again, KCNA did not indicate that any coronavirus patients exist in the country, calling into question the urgency of new measures to fight the virus.
“The central emergency anti-epidemic units are concentrating their efforts on taking preemptive measures after finding defects in inspection, quarantine, etc., given the ever-worsening global health crisis and changed weather, in order to establish steel-strong anti-epidemic system and order,” KCNA reported.