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Nearly 1,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea at risk after hackers leak their personal information

Kim Hyuk, North Korean defector and public speaker, signs a copy of “Nothing to Envy,” a book which features his story of living and escaping from North Korea, at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, May 31, 2013. Hyuk signed dozens of books for audience members who attend the three-part informative seminar where he told nearly 700 people his life story. (Staff Sgt. Sara Csurilla/U.S. Air Force)
December 31, 2018

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A South Korean resettlement center for North Korean defectors was hacked into and information about 997 of them has been leaked, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification said on Friday.

The defectors’ names, birthdates and addresses were stolen from a personal computer found with malicious code at the Hana Center in North Gyeongsang province, the ministry said.

The leak was discovered after a Dec. 19 on-site probe, performed by the ministry in cooperation with the provincial government.

There were no other confirmed cases of hacking at any of the other 24 Hana relocation centers across the country, according to the ministry.

The 997 defectors have been notified of the data breach, but none have reported any damage, the ministry said.

The leak raises a safety concern not only for the defectors themselves.

“[Many of us] have family still living there,” said North Korean Defector Park Kwang-il in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

“The North Korean authorities may try to use this information as leverage to put pressure or punish [them].”

Another defector, Kim Young-jin, who entered South Korea in 2011 said, “The North Korean government isn’t always aware when people defect,”

Their family members can go on with their lives in North Korea without telling anybody,” Kim said, adding, “I’m worried that this could lead to [relatives of] defectors coming into harm’s way.”

Authorities are still investigating the cyberattack and have not yet discovered who is behind it or from where it originated.

The unification ministry said it would work with police in their investigation, and would take measures to ensure that no further breaches occur.

Starting next year, computer networks in Hana centers will be reorganized, with computers meant for data storage and those for internet use placed in separate networks

Additional Reporting by Jae-wan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service, with translation by Dukin Han.