Since the Coronavirus outbreak began in December 2019 and turned into a pandemic, North Korea has claimed to be free of the virus. But when a defector, Kim Geum Hyok, who escaped to South Korea in 2017, returned to North on Sunday, July 26, the Kim Jong Un-administered nation declared the highest level of national emergency.
While the secretive nation's health officials suspected Kim to be "infected with the vicious virus" as per state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), despite running several tests they were "uncertain" whether he had COVID-19. But KCNA revealed that the defector's contacts were put in quarantine and Kaesong City, where he returned, was put under lockdown.
Who is Kim Geum Hyok?
Kim is an ordinary North Korean who was amused by the dazzling lights of South Korean buildings which were visible from his hometown of Kaesong. Unemployed and hungry, he decided to run away from the misery, the New York Times reported.
Three years ago, he climbed Mount White Horse in North Korea and spent two nights there before coming down and crawling under and over the barbed wire fences in the border. After making his way through a minefield, he hid in reeds near the Han River and waited for nightfall. He then swam for seven and a half hours before he reached Ganghwa Island in South.
"I kept swimming toward the light. When I finally landed on the South Korean side and walked through reeds and saw South Korean soldiers approaching, I was so exhausted I collapsed," Kim said in an interview with Kim Jin Ah on a YouTube channel. The latter also defected from Kaesong.
In Kaesong, Kim said he used to sell eggs and vegetables near the industrial park, which was developed in a joint effort of two Koreas in 2004. But following North's nuclear ambition and subsequent dispute, South withdrew from the project and the economy collapsed, forcing Kim and many others like him out of work.
While in the North, Kim had hearing problems which he got corrected in South Korea as per Kim Jinh. He told her that he enrolled in a vocational course but quit after finding a job to support his family in the North.
Why Did He Return?
Not many defectors decide to go back to the North as they are considered "human scum" by Kim Jong Un regime. In addition, unlike approximately 33,000 others, who chose China or Southeast Asian route to enter the South, Kim picked the most dangerous and heavily armed route to defect.
So, after making such a dangerous journey, why did he return to Kaesong? One reason could be an arrest warrant in the South. He revealed to Kim Jinh that a fellow defector had accused him of rape but he could not remember anything as he was drunk.
Police officials in Gimpo, South Korea confirmed that an arrest warrant was issued. But while South Korean police didn't reveal his full name, the information they released for media was enough to understand the identity of the person. His fellow defectors also identified the accused as Kim.
Kim Jinh said he was already planning to leave after she received a text from him that read, "I really didn't want to lose you because you were like a big sister to me. I will repay my debt to you no matter where I live, as long as I live."
When Kim Jinh rushed to his apartment in the South, she found that he had vacated the flat. She added that Kim sold a used car he borrowed from Kim Jinh to raise money for going home. While investigating, South Korean officials found a bag that contained bank receipts of withdrawal worth 5 million won ($4,000), New York Times reported.
According to North Korean officials, he has been quarantined but accused him of the "dangerous situation in Kaesong City that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster."
Mystery Surrounding COVID-19 in North
Despite sharing an 880-mile long border with China, North Korea maintained its stance on zero Coronavirus cases in the country. It boasted about early efforts of closing down borders and quarantining all diplomats in Pyongyang for a month.
But Daily NK, a South Korea-based news outlet, reported that North had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pyongyang, South Hwanghae and North Hamgyong provinces. It also revealed that several people had even died including 180 soldiers of the Korean People's Army. Soon after, a report emerged that North Korea allegedly executed a patient who breached quarantine protocol.
Apart from that, North Korea has secretly sought protective equipment, COVID-19 test kits and medicines through third party channels while their Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un disappeared for months. He could have been in quarantine despite not confirming it, alleged some reports.
Then why has North sort declared a national emergency over just one "suspected case"? As per analysts, North Korea really is in a dire situation, and declaring an emergency is a signal to seek help from the world.