What is known about North Korea’s possible coronavirus ‘patient zero’

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After North Korea announced what could be its first publicly confirmed case of coronavirus on Sunday, officials in Seoul believe they may have identified the man suspected of crossing into the North, but said so far there is no sign he was infected.


North Korea’s state media only described the suspected patient as a person who had “run away” to South Korea three years ago before returning to the North.

South Korean officials have not named the person, but identified a 24-year-old man who they say fits the description and probably returned to the North recently, Yonhap news agency reported.

Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency told Reuters that in June a woman filed a complaint accusing the man of sexual abuse. Police said they issued a warrant for the man’s arrest on July 19, the same day he is alleged to have arrived in North Korea.


North Korea had said it had no confirmed cases of the virus, a claim some experts and U.S. officials have cast doubt on.

North Korea’s report did not specify whether the person had tested positive for COVID-19, only that he had shown symptoms and that several medical checks returned “an uncertain result.”

South Korean health authorities said they had found no sign that the man identified as the possible defector had tested positive for the virus, or been in contact with anyone who had, health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing on Monday.

“We cannot confirm whether this person is a suspected COVID-19 patient or not,” he said.

Two people who had been in contact with the man had tested negative for the virus on Sunday, Yoon added.


North Korean state media said the suspected COVID-19 patient “illegally crossed” the demarcation line on July 19, and leader Kim Jong Un called for an investigation into the military units at the border.

The man is believed to have crossed from Gwanghwa, a South Korean island about 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Kaesong, the border city in North Korea where he was caught, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Monday.

He appears to have evaded troops on the South side of the border by passing through a drain pipe under barbed wire fences, and authorities found a bag believed to belong to him, the JCS said.

More than 30,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, while at least 11 have returned to North Korea over the past five years, according to the South’s Unification Ministry.

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