The South Korean crosses the armed border in a rare escape to the North By Reuters

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© Reuters. A man stands near binoculars while trying to see the North Korean propaganda village of Gijungdong at the Dora Observatory near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS / Kim Hong-Ji

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A South Korean man has crossed a heavily fortified border in a rare defection to North Korea, the South Korean military said on Sunday.

The Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) said he conducted a search operation after discovering the person on Saturday around 9:20 p.m. (12:20 p.m. GMT) on the east side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas.

“We have confirmed that the person crossed the border of the military demarcation line around 22:40 (13:40 GMT) and fled to the north,” JCS said.

The JCS said it could not confirm if the person was alive, but sent a notice to the North via a military phone line seeking protection.

The border crossing, which is illegal in South Korea, came after North Korea implemented tough measures against the coronavirus since closing borders in early 2020, although it did not confirm any infections.

Public and political uproar ensued after North Korean troops killed a South Korean fisheries official who went missing at sea in September 2020, for which Pyongyang blamed antivirus rules and apologized.

Two months earlier, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared a state of emergency and closed the border town after a North Korean defector he said had symptoms of COVID-19 illegally crossed the border north from the south.

The prolonged blockade of North Korea and restrictions on movement among the provinces have also pushed the number of North Korean defectors arriving south to historically low levels.

Cross-border relations have deteriorated after denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington stalled after a failed 2019 summit.

South Korea and U.S.-led UN forces are technically still at war with North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War. ended in a truce, not a peace agreement.

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