North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea to threaten people who had fled the hermit kingdom, South Korea’s Unification Minister said Tuesday.
South Korean Minister Cho Myoung-Gyonto said his country would work to increase protections for defectors in the south, including by putting more limits on who can access the database holding defectors’ personal information. The minister said North Korean spies and hackers may have infiltrated the database to steal the personal data of North Koreans who had escaped.
“There is a real challenge for North Koreans because they usually aren’t well educated, they stand out, their dialect is different and they are smaller,” explained Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center. “And there is a long history of North Korea sending people into the south [as spies].”
“North Korean security officials are also visiting defector families and applying pressure to make them talk the defectors into returning home,” a source said.
Despite the dangers in South Korea, North Koreans who have made it south are luckier than many who get stuck in China on their way. This summer, at least 70 North Korean defectors were intercepted in China, held in detention centers and eventually deported back to North Korea. Human rights experts criticize China for repatriating North Korean defectors, but Beijing continues to abide by a 1986 treaty with Pyongyang that includes a repatriation agreement.