Hackers Target North Korea Defectors, Steal Personal Information on 1,000 Escapees

Hackers have stolen the personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who fled the dictatorship to start new lives in South Korea, authorities in Seoul announced.

The data was taken from a database belonging to South Korea's resettlement agency via a computer infected with malicious software at the Hana center in the southern city of Gumi, Reuters reported.

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The breach—which involved the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors—was announced by the country's unification ministry. "The malware was planted through emails sent by an internal address" at the Hana center, a ministry official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The Hana center is one of 25 institutes that help North Korean defectors adapt to a new life in the South, where many struggle with a significantly different economy and society. The 25 centers support some 32,000 defectors, providing them with jobs and medical and legal support, according to Reuters.

The unnamed ministry official said the matter was under police investigation but refused to provide any suspected motive or say whether North Korea was behind the hack.

Defectors are denounced as "human scum" by state media in Pyongyang, and those who flee risk their lives in doing so. Even if they are successful, relatives and friends who are left behind can be punished as retribution. North Korea has also accused the South of kidnapping the escapees.

The unification ministry explained that it planned to notify all those whose information was leaked, and said the breach had not caused any negative impacts yet. "We're sorry this has happened and will make efforts to prevent it from recurring," the ministry official added.

North Korean hackers were previously accused of targeting southern state agencies and businesses with cyberattacks. In 2017, warship blueprints were stolen from the South's defense ministry and a large shipbuilding firm, while last summer a cryptocurrency exchange went bankrupt after a suspected attack from the North. Pyongyang denied involvement in both incidents.

Numerous defectors have disappeared and returned to North Korea, whether by choice or through coercion by Pyongyang—for example, after threats were made to family members who remained in the country.

If the North does prove to be behind the hack, it could undermine improved relations between the two Koreas over the past year. The leaders of the two nations have held multiple meetings, and the administrations are working on a range of cross-border projects—from a joint railway to an Olympic Games bid.

North Korea flag Pyongyang
The Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea building, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on August 23. Carl Court/Getty Images