Last December, an unidentified hacker stole the personal information of 997 North Korean refugees, shaking the refugee community in South Korea. According to the Ministry of Unification, the refugees’ names, birthdays, and addresses were stolen from a personal computer at a Hana Center, an institute in North Gyeongsang province that the Ministry runs where North Korean refugees can receive help after arriving in South Korea.
Such information on North Korean refugees could put family members back in North Korea in grave danger if it gets into the hands of the North Korean government. Keenly aware of North Korea’s cyber ability and the consequences of information exposed from past cases, North Korean refugees who have family members back in North Korea live in a state of constant anxiety.
In 2006, a group of North Korean refugees was found on a boat by a South Korean sentry soldier in Goseong, Gangwon Province in South Korea. Terrified that their family members could be asked to take responsibility and punished for their escape, once the North Korean government learned about their identities, the refugees asked South Korean investigators not to reveal their information to the public. However, Gangwon Provincial Police Agency gave a report that included details of the refugees’ identities to South Korea’s news media outlets, disclosing their personal information to the public. After contacting their sources in North Korea, the refugees learned the devastating news that a total of 22 members of their immediate families had disappeared. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
While South Korea is known to have one of the strongest information technology infrastructures in the world, the Ministry of Unification has confirmed that the Hana Center in Gyeongsang violated an order to use a segregated network when handling the personal information of North Korean refugees, leading to malicious code sent via an email to infect the personal computer of an employee.