In November 2020, a former North Korean gymnast climbed 3-meter-tall barbed wire fences to enter South Korea, undetected. When the country discovered the invasion, a hunt began, and the man was not found until the next day, half a mile south of the most heavily armed border in the world.
It was one of the most embarrassing moments for the South Korean military in several years.
On the last day of New Year, officials said, the man humiliated the military again, this time doing the reverse trip: climbing the same fences and crossing the demilitarized zone to return to North Korea.
The extraordinary feat not only highlighted the South’s security gaps in the 4-kilometer buffer zone (known by the acronym DMZ) but raised the perplexing question of why anyone would risk their life crossing it twice.
The demilitarized zone is equipped with barbed wire fences, minefields and armed sentries. Few North Koreans who defect cross it directly — most pass through China — and it is even rarer for a defector to return there.
“We are very sorry for causing concern to the population,” General Won In-choul, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers on Wednesday. “We will make every effort to ensure that there is no recurrence of similar incidents.” At the same hearing, Defense Minister Suh Wook confirmed that Seoul believes the man who crossed the border was the former gymnast who defected in 2020.
The government did not release his name, but other defectors identified him as Kim Woo-joo, 29. They said the young man had few friends, and his motive for returning home is still a mystery. Lawmakers speculated that he was a spy, but President Moon Jae-in’s government said it found no evidence of this.
A series of lapses allowed him to pass through the DMZ, admitted Lieutenant General Jeon Dong-jin, who led the Army’s investigation into the security breach.
He was first captured by a military security camera at around 1pm on Saturday (1st), walking towards an area south of the DMZ, in the eastern province of Gangwon, off-limits to civilians. A warning was broadcast over loudspeakers, but the military took no further action after the man appeared to change course and head for a nearby village.
Six hours later, he was climbing the first high fence at the southern edge of the DMZ. Three cameras captured the scene, but a soldier who was monitoring the real-time transmissions of nine cameras on a single computer screen did not see it. Sensors on the fence set off an alarm, but a quick reaction team decided nothing was wrong.
Hours later, in the dead of night, military thermal observation devices detected the man inside the DMZ on his way to North Korea.
Of the roughly 34,000 North Koreans who fled to South Korea, 30 have mysteriously reappeared in the North in the past decade. Some would have been blackmailed into returning; others fled criminal charges in the new country.
Still others would have returned because after growing up in North Korea’s highly regimental society, they failed to adapt to hypercompetitive life in the South, where defectors are often treated as second-class citizens. What little is known about Kim’s life in this recent period suggests that he might fall into this category.
Other defectors say the former gymnast, like most who make this change, has adopted a new name: Kim Woo-jeong. He appears to have had a hard life in both Koreas, according to officials and lawmakers who received information from military and intelligence officials.
Like all defectors, Kim was interrogated by the South Korean government upon arrival. Said he fled the North to escape an abusive stepfather. At the time, he weighed 50 kilograms and was about 1.30 meters tall.
By then, crossing the border into China — the usual route for refugees — had become nearly impossible because of the pandemic. To keep the coronavirus out of its territory, North Korea has tightened controls, placing guards in the region under “shoot to kill” orders. But Kim crossed the DMZ, where, according to South Korean officials, his gymnastic skills helped him climb fences.
In South Korea, life seems to have been difficult. He made few friends, officials said, and apparently never met with neighbors. He found work in cleaning services, whose employees work mostly at night in empty office buildings. Since Sunday, when the first reports of his return to the North surfaced, no one has come forward to say they knew him personally.
Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean who lives in Seoul, said a defector’s first experiences can be crucial. “The first job they get and how they are treated in it is very important,” he says. “That’s when they realize if their dream has an echo in reality.”
Their first friends are usually other North Koreans, whom they meet during the government’s 12-week resettlement programme. Before the pandemic, when up to 3,000 defectors arrived a year, classes were full. But with the Chinese border locked, only 229 North Koreans fled to the South in 2020, the year Kim defected.
“He had few classmates and few friends,” says Ahn Chan-il, leader of a group of defectors in Seoul. South Korean churches, where many find support, have been under lockdown in the pandemic.
If Kim suffered from poverty and loneliness in the South, he was not the only defector in those conditions. Nearly a quarter of North Korean defectors — six times the national average — receive government subsidies for basic needs because they are in the lower income bracket. Among them, salary earners earn 70 percent of the national average, according to a survey of 407 defectors conducted last year by the North Korean Human Rights Data Center in Seoul.
About 35% of them reported experiencing depression, and 19% said they had thought about returning to the North, mainly because they missed their family and their cities, according to the survey.
One of the reasons many hapless defectors endure life in the South is that they can save money and send it to relatives in the North through intermediaries in China, who usually charge a 30% fee. But temporary jobs, like many of them, were the first to be cut by firms as the pandemic worsened.
Living alone in a tiny, $117-a-month apartment in northern Seoul, Kim received $418 a month in government welfare. He rarely cooked, saved on gas, water and electricity, and had overdue rent and health insurance bills, according to South Korean news agency Yonhap.
“We help North Korean refugees resettle when they arrive, but we have failed to help them find employment and make their lives sustainable here,” Park Soo-hyun, the government’s public communications secretary, said this week.
For some defectors, the transition to the South is like a prisoner released after many years who is unable to readjust to the outside world, according to Lee Min-bok, a former North Korean refugee. “They are strangers to sudden freedom, finding it more difficult than life in North Korea, which is essentially a prison,” he says.
Culture shock is especially difficult for the few who cross the DMZ. Many defectors spend years living in China, which is much more open to the world than North Korea. When they move south, they have some idea of what to expect.
On Thursday, North Korea said nothing about Kim’s return. The country often uses returning defectors to advertise, releasing videos and articles in which they describe a hellish life in the capitalist South.
Kim left few traces behind. On the fence he crossed, investigators found light footprints and bits of feathers, which apparently fell from his coat torn by the barbed wire. Reporters who went to her house found it empty, with a folded blanket neatly placed outside for the garbage collector to pick up.