The man in his 30s was “barely scraping a living” in South Korea where he was working as a janitor, the official claimed.
The North Korean grabbed headlines for his rare move of returning North while thousands of North Koreans take the arduous journey to resettle in the South in pursuit of better life and job opportunities.
The South Korean defence ministry said in a statement on Monday that their surveillance system detected an unidentified individual penetrating the heavily armed Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which separates the two Koreas.
Military officials said there was little chance of the man being a North Korean spy, but they have launched an investigation into how he was able to evade guards.
“I would say he was classified as lower class, barely scraping a living,” the official said.
A ministry official said that the man was captured by the South Korean army in November 2020 entering using a similar route and identified himself as a former gymnast.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, concerns were raised in June by police in Seoul who provided protection and assistance to the man over a possible attempt to head back home. However, no action was taken due to lack of evidence.
The man had little interaction with his neighbours and was seen by them throwing his mattress away a day before he crossed the border, it was reported.
“He was taking out a mattress and bedding to garbage dumps on that morning, and it was strange because they were all too new,” a neighbour was quoted by Yonhap as saying. “I thought about asking him to give it to us, but ended up not doing that, because we’ve never said hi to each other.”
An official at Seoul’s Unification Ministry who handles cross-border affairs said on Tuesday that the suspected man was receiving government assistance for safety, housing and medical needs.
So far, around 33,800 North Koreans have crossed the border to resettle in the South – most via China.
But, since 2012, only 30 defectors are recorded to have returned to the tightly controlled North, according to the Unification Ministry.
Activists say the case has shed a spotlight on the plight of defectors who take the dangerous journey in search of a better life but end up struggling with social, economic and emotional difficulties.
About 56 per cent of defectors from North are in the low-income group, official data shows.
Around 18 per cent said they were willing to return to the North, most citing nostalgia as the reason in a poll conducted by Database Centre For North Korean Human Rights and NK Social Research in Seoul.