South Korea has spent decades screening refugees from its hostile northern neighbor but some enemy agents manage to get through, underlining the challenges Western nations face in dealing with a far larger influx of people escaping the war in Syria.
Seoul uses lie detectors, interrogation and a screening process that includes keeping people in solitary confinement to catch North Korean agents among genuine asylum seekers.
Still, between 2003 and 2013, of the 49 North Korean spies apprehended in the South, 21 entered the country posing as refugees, according to the country’s justice ministry.
“The question of spies slipping through is always a problem, and we need to make the process more meticulous and advanced,” said Shin Kyung-min, the ranking opposition member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee. “But it’s not like we can stop taking in North Korean defectors because of that,” Shin told Reuters.
Around 1,000 North Koreans defect to the South every year and are held for up to 180 days while they are screened. If they clear that, the refugees are transferred to a resettlement complex, which they cannot leave, for another 12 weeks to help them adjust to life in the South.
New North Korean arrivals to the South, who typically enter via a third country, are brought to a facility in Siheung on the southern outskirts of Seoul. There, they are separated for questioning on their backgrounds and lives in the North, spending time in solitary but comfortable rooms.
No exception is made for families or children, who are taken from their parents and face similar questioning, according to a civic group. Read more