A North Korean defector who used to work for Seoul City Hall was arrested last week for handing over personal information of other defectors in the capital to the North. The National Intelligence Service said the man, identified only by his surname Yoo, worked for the welfare policy department at the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
Yoo came to South Korea in 2004 and was hired by the city in 2011 on a two-year contract through a special program for North Korean defectors. Since 2005, Yoo secretly went to North Korea several times and met with State Security Department officials there. He later e-mailed information about other defectors to the North.
The NIS says Yoo until recently met other defectors two or three times a week to tend to their welfare needs.
The lives of 24,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea depend on how well their identities and other personal information are protected. In 1997, North Korean agents assassinated Lee Han-young, the nephew of former leader Kim Jong-il's wife Song Hye-rim, who had defected here. Lee was assassinated in front of his home.
In 2010, a North Korean agent was arrested after entering the South on a mission to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect. And last year, another North Korean agent was arrested trying to infiltrate South Korea posing as a defector in order to assassinate other defectors who float anti-communist leaflets to the North.
If the identities of defectors are exposed, their safety and the lives of their families left behind in the North are threatened. Once the North Korean regime gets its hands on the information, it often executes their families or sends them to prison camps.
Some defectors have returned to the North because Pyongyang blackmailed them taking their family hostage. Defectors often use two or three aliases to conceal their identities and some even undergo plastic surgery to change their appearance.
The government is far too lax when it comes to guarding their identities. So bad has the situation become that a group of defectors submitted a petition to prosecutors last year complaining that a foundation that is supposed to help them leaked their personal data.
The government limits access to state and city officials who handle information on North Korean defectors so that only a small handful of them can gain access to the data on an intranet to issue documents and provide welfare services. But there are gaping holes in the system, as demonstrated by a court decision in May last year awarding W150 million (US$1=W1,064) in compensation to five defectors who sued the government for passing out their personal information to media, putting the lives of their families in the North at risk.
The Seoul city worker who was arrested this time was apparently able to pass identity checks with ease. The government must increase security checks of state and city workers who can get access to such information and bolster cyber defenses in order to prevent hacking by North Korea.