A man who entered North Korea on New Year's Day by breaching the heavily fortified border from the South is presumed to be a defector from the North, the defence ministry in Seoul said Monday.

The man sparked a search operation by the South Korean military on Saturday when surveillance equipment spotted him crossing an eastern section of the border into the North. They failed to find him.

South Korean authorities have yet to identify him, but a defence ministry official said he is believed to be someone who came from North Korea in 2020 -- also by breaching the border.

"We presume this to be the same man who defected to the South by climbing over the barbed-wire fence in November 2020," the official told AFP.

The man is in his 30s, the official added, without providing further details.

Separately, South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a defence ministry official as saying the man "was recognised to be the same as the defector".

No evidence of spying has been discovered so far, the official told Yonhap.

The man is believed to have worked as a cleaner in South Korea after defecting, the agency added.

The South Korean military notified the North of the crossing at the weekend.

North Korea indicated it had received the message but did not respond further, the defence ministry official told AFP.

- Rare crossing -

Years of repression and poverty in North Korea have led more than 30,000 people to flee to the South in the decades since the Korean War, but crossings in the other direction are extremely rare. 

In 2020, North Korean troops shot dead and burned the body of a South Korean fisheries official Pyongyang said had illegally crossed the maritime border.

In the same year, a North Korean who had defected to the South three years earlier sneaked back across the border.

That breach prompted North Korean officials to put the border city of Kaesong under lockdown over fears he may have the coronavirus.

The vast majority of North Koreans who escape first go to China before making their way to the South, usually via another country.

Only a few have dared to cross the Demilitarized Zone separating the Korean peninsula, which is riddled with landmines and has heavy military presence on both sides.



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