South Korea’s Unification Ministry said last month it will “inspect” 25 defector-run NGOs, citing their failure to file necessary documents, and check if 64 others are following conditions to stay registered. Then on Wednesday, the ministry expanded the investigation to a total of 289 organizations.
The ministry has already revoked the licenses of two defector groups that were sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North, following complaints from North Korea. Without a license, the organizations cannot get tax exemptions and hold fundraisers, though donations are still allowed.
Many of the groups have for decades worked with Seoul behind the scenes to bring defectors to the South via an informal network of brokers, charities and middlemen dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”. Intermediaries work as guides and offer shelter for defectors during their long, dangerous journey across China into Southeast Asia.
The sweeping probe by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration is scaring away donors, activists said. Several NGOs told Reuters the defector networks may never recover, even when borders closed due to coronavirus reopen.