SEOUL • North Korea is seizing on the return of a defector from the South to point the finger at Seoul for the arrival of coronavirus in the country after months of denying it had any cases, analysts have said.
Pyongyang imposed a lockdown on the border city of Kaesong, saying it had found a suspected Covid-19 infection in a defector who had returned across the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone that divides the peninsula, state media reported at the weekend.
For months, the North had denied having any cases of the virus that swept the world after first emerging in neighbouring China – its main diplomatic backer and trade partner – raising scepticism among observers.
Seoul officials said yesterday that the man believed to be the re-defector has never been confirmed as a coronavirus patient in the South, nor a contact of a confirmed case.
The South has carried out more than 1.5 million tests as part of an extensive “trace, test and treat” model that has largely brought the outbreak under control.
Analysts said the North was likely to have already had virus cases, and Pyongyang was looking to blame Seoul for the outbreak, rather than its own longstanding ally Beijing.
“North Korea may try to use the defector’s return to deflect the blame for an outbreak that has already occurred, or for any future quarantine failures,” said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee yesterday.
“It could take issue with South Korea’s poor front-line security,” she told Agence France-Presse.
“It could even claim that South Korea purposefully sent the defector back to North Korea to spread the virus there.”
Ms Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert at the International Crisis Group, added that by blaming an imported case from the South, the North “can now legitimately and openly accept” aid from Seoul.
The North could “further send a message about defectors, painting them as enemies of the state”, she added in a tweet.
North Korea may try to use the defector’s return to deflect the blame for an outbreak that has already occurred, or for any future quarantine failures.
FORMER U.S. GOVERNMENT NORTH KOREA ANALYST RACHEL LEE
Pyongyang has repeatedly excoriated leaflet-sending defectors and the Seoul government in recent weeks, worsening already frozen inter-Korea ties and culminating in the North blowing up a liaison office on its side of the border.
It is extremely rare for North Korean defectors to return to their original country, where rights groups say they face severe punishment for leaving. The South’s Unification Ministry says only 11 are known to have done so in the past five years.
It is even rarer for them to travel through the Demilitarised Zone, one of the world’s most secure borders, replete with minefields and guard posts.
But the South Korean military said a North Korean defector was believed to have returned to the North from Ganghwa island, on the Han river estuary north-west of Seoul.
He was not officially identified, but according to multiple media reports and defectors, he is a 24-year-old who defected in 2017, also by swimming across a river.
He is being investigated on rape allegations in the South, they added.
The North’s medical infrastructure is seen as woefully inadequate to deal with any epidemic, and Pyongyang closed its borders in late January – the first country in the world to do so – in an effort to protect itself against the coronavirus.