A defector allegedly infected with COVID-19 who recently crossed over the inter-Korean border had turned himself in to Kaesong Ministry of State Security (MSS) officials several days after arriving in the city and is now being confined at a local MSS compound, Daily NK has learned.

A source in North Korea told Daily NK yesterday that the man had stayed at a friend’s house in Kaesong for “several days” before turning himself in.

“Soon after he was arrested by MSS agents in Kaesong, his case was reported to the MSS [in Pyongyang] and word even reached the Supreme Leader [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un],” the source said.

According to the source, the Kaesong MSS officials took the man to a hospital in the city immediately after his arrest to conduct blood and urine tests, an X-ray, and other tests. The test results were sent to the Central Anti-epidemic Committee and even reported to Kim Jong Un.

Typically, any defector who returns to North Korea – regardless of how they entered the country – is taken into custody by the MSS in Pyongyang and interrogated at a “special” detention center.

In this case, MSS officials decided to isolate the man for 30 days in Kaesong to monitor his health because he was already suspected of having contracted COVID-19, according to the source.

The man, who is referred to in state media as a “runaway,” is now undergoing a “first-round” of interrogations in an isolated room connected to the interrogation room at the Kaesong MSS compound, the source said.

“The runaway to South Korea had a fever, but [the authorities believe] it wasn’t due to the virus [COVID-19]. [They] believe that he may have caught a cold while crossing the border and have decided to isolate him and monitor [his health],” explained the source.

“After the 30-day quarantine period is over – and he’s judged to be healthy – a full-fledged investigation is likely to begin,” he added.

SHIFT TO A “MAXIMUM EMERGENCY SYSTEM”

North Korea has reportedly moved to a “maximum emergency system” on the basis of the man’s suspected COVID-19 infection. According to a North Korean media report, Kim Jong Un recently attended an “emergency expanded meeting” of the communist party’s politburo, which decided unanimously to “shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system” to a “maximum emergency system.”

It is possible that North Korean authorities chose to alert the entire population through Korean Central TV (KCTV) about the returnee’s suspected COVID-19 infection to increase vigilance toward the disease and justify the ramping up of surveillance and crackdowns near the country’s borders.

Some within North Korea think that the country’s leadership is simply trying to push responsibility for a COVID-19 outbreak on South Korea and turn people’s attention away from the country’s economic troubles, according to the source.

“Officials who have worked in public health for a long time said that the Suryong [Kim Il Sung] had declared the implementation of a maximum emergency system for livestock disease control after all the animals at a duck farm died of a contagious disease,” the source said, adding, “This time, however, the threat involves the lives and health of human beings, so [Kim Jong Un] has essentially declared that disease control [authorities] are in a state of war.”

The source further reported that municipal officials in Kaesong, which is now under a state of emergency, have been ordered to completely lock down the city until additional orders by the communist party are handed down, and to also cancel any permits for travel in and out of the city.

North Korean authorities are reportedly telling the country’s population through various party organizations, hospitals, disease control centers and inminban [North Korea’s lowest administrative unit] that a “runaway to South Korea” suspected of being infected with COVID-19 had returned and that the authorities had implemented a “maximum emergency system” to prevent anyone from getting infected, including children, the elderly, hospital patients and others susceptible to the disease.

“[The authorities] are trying to increase people’s vigilance [toward the disease] by isolating the man as a suspected case of [COVID-19] while also taking the opportunity to raise people’s hatred of defectors on both sides of the border,” the source said.

“The runaway could later be used in regime propaganda claiming that he has been completely cured [of COVID-19] thanks to the party’s disease control system and the benefits of [the country’s] free medical care,” he added.

The source also said he had heard rumors from government officials that the authorities could explain future shipments of medical supplies and food from South Korea as “compensation” for “allowing” the disease-afflicted man into the country.

LOTS OF UNKNOWNS

The South Korean government believes that the returnee, surnamed Kim, is suspected of sexually assaulting a woman and is currently investigating various aspects of Kim’s return to North Korea, including where he crossed the inter-Korean border.

“We spotted the specific location from which he crossed over to the North on Ganghwa Island,” Kim Jun-rak, a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a briefing yesterday.

A senior official at Seoul’s health ministry said that Kim had “never been diagnosed with the disease” or been “classified as someone who had come into contact with a confirmed patient in the South.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

SHARE
Avatar
Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.