Defector who returned was not infected, South Korea says

South Korea has said that the man suspected of being North Korea’s first confirmed Covid-19 patient did not have the virus.

The man apparently defected from North to South three years ago, before seemingly deciding to return last week.

South Korean military said the 24-year-old man reached the North from Ganghwa Island, near the border.

He apparently crawled under barbed wire in a drain which leads to the Yellow Sea, before swimming to the North.

“We spotted the specific location from which he fled, as a bag believed to belong to the man was found,” Col Kim Jun-rak said, according to Yonhap news agency.

Earlier, North Korean state media said the man had defected to South Korea three years ago, before returning earlier this month is suspected of having coronavirus. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also ordered a “maximum emergency system” to contain the virus.

He reached the North Korean city of Kaesong, which is near the coast, on 19 July.

Experts suggest North Korea’s acceptance means it is appealing to the world for help.

Cho Han-bum, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was significant that North Korea was reporting its first suspected coronavirus case was imported.

“North Korea is in such a dire situation, where they can’t even finish building the Pyongyang General Hospital on time. Pointing the blame at an ‘imported case’ from South Korea, the North can use this as a way to openly accept aid from the South,” Cho said.

North Korea has received thousands of coronavirus testing kits from Russia and other countries and imposed strict border closures.

Thousands of people in North Korea were also quarantined as it took precautions to prevent a coronavirus outbreak but restrictions had recently been eased.

North Korea is under economic pressure because of international sanctions over its nuclear programme