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Defector who fled hospital finally caught in Incheon

Oct 20,2017
이미지뷰
Diving gear found in the rooftop room where Yoo Tae-joon lived for 78 days after escaping from a mental hospital. [NAJU POLICE PRECINCT]
A North Korean defector who lived in hiding for 78 days after escaping from a mental hospital in Naju, South Jeolla, was caught in Incheon Wednesday.

Last August, 48-year-old Yoo Tae-joon managed to break his ankle monitor and slip away from the mental hospital where he was being treated for psychosis. The hunt for Yoo, which included a police reward of up to 10 million won ($8,837), ended Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. when undercover Naju police discovered Yoo riding a bike near his rooftop room in Namdong District, Incheon, only a minute’s walk away from a police station.

In the room, police found swimming equipment including a diving suit, a snorkeling mask, swimming fins and goggles, which Yoo claimed he planned to use to return to North Korea.

Yoo crossed the maritime border into South Korea twice. He first defected in 1998 but returned to the North in 2001, claiming he wanted to bring his wife out. In 2002, he came back alone. Police did not say by which means he defected.

Yoo started showing symptoms of mental illness shortly after he settled in the South. In July 2004, he staged a one-man protest near Gwanghwamun in central Seoul demanding that he be allowed to “return to the arms of General Kim Jong-il.”

Three months later, Yoo received a three-year jail sentence for the attempted murder of his half brother during an argument. As part of his sentence, the court ordered ten years of medical treatment and he was institutionalized.

During treatment, he showed signs of psychosis, making claims that he was “kidnapped by the National Intelligence Service.”

The hospital forced him to wear an electronic tracking device on his ankle last March and he escaped in August.

The Naju police, who searched for Yoo with the Gwangju Probation Office since his escape, are planning to file a pre-trial detention warrant for Yoo on a charge of violating the National Security Law. Though Yoo claimed that his escape had not been planned, his actions prior to the escape, such as withdrawing 1 million won from the bank, indicated otherwise.

Thursday afternoon, Yoo confessed to Naju police that he wanted to return to North Korea to meet his wife, and described a plan to return home by crossing the Yellow Sea from Wolmi Island. Since being caught, Yoo has insisted the South Korean government was “illegally holding him hostage.”

After his escape, Yoo supported himself by working as a daily laborer. He claimed that he was able to buy a smartphone by using the identity of a homeless man he met in a park.

Yoo’s account of his journey from Naju showed that local police did not search a mountain behind the mental hospital on the day of Yoo’s escape. According to Yoo, he hid on the mountain and used public transport to travel north the next morning.

BY KIM HO, KIM EUN-JIN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]