SEOUL A "serial" North Korean defector has given a substantial U.S. and South Korean military presence the slip, stealing a 9-tonne fishing trawler to return to the impoverished North, the Yonhap news agency reported on Thursday.
South Korea's Yonhap described the 28-year-old crab fisherman, identified only as Lee, as a "serial" defector who had made what appeared to be his fourth dash to the North.
It gave no explanation how he had managed to defect so many times, let alone how he had been able to avoid imprisonment in North Korea, which has ratcheted up tension on the peninsula with increasingly strident rhetoric in recent weeks.
South Korean military officials said the boat commandeered by Lee had been spotted too late to be intercepted.
"The fishing boat had managed to enter a blind spot on our radar," Yonhap quoted an unidentified South Korean military official as saying.
He evaded detection despite being based on the island of Yeongpyeong, a hotspot on the border between the North and South that was shelled by North Korea in 2010. He had been living in the South since 2007, Yonhap said.
The United States has deployed state-of-the-art military assets to the region in response to Pyongyang's threats to launch a nuclear strike and stage all-out war.
There are more than 20,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. Some have returned home to a hero's welcome and subsequently denounced the South.
Pyongyang parades returnees in an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of its social system, despite external reports from bodies like the United Nations that show many of its 24 million people face regular food shortages. (Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)