The South Korean army identified the man who crossed the fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on Saturday as a North Korean who had fled south into a similar region just over a year ago.
The man’s plight sheds new light on the deserters’ lives, and raises questions about whether they would have received adequate support after making the perilous journey from the impoverished and tightly controlled North to the rich and democratic South.
The defector is in his 30s and living in poverty while working as a janitor, a military official said.
“I would say he was classified as underclass, barely able to live,” said the official, who declined to elaborate further citing privacy concerns.
Officials, who say there is little risk the man is a North Korean spy, have opened an inquiry to understand how the man bypassed guards despite being spotted on security cameras a few hours before crossing the border.
North Korean officials did not comment on the incident and state media did not report it.
Since 2012, there has been confirmation that only 30 defectors have returned to the North, according to the Ministry of Unification. But defectors and activists say there could be many more unknowns among those who struggled to adjust to life in the south.