North Korea Officials Infiltrated South Korea to Intimidate Defectors

North Korean defectors living in the south playing the role of North Korean defectors fleeing in China. Reuters

North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea to threaten people who had fled the hermit kingdom, South Korea's Unification Minister said Tuesday, raising questions about how well the U.S. ally can protect those seeking sanctuary.

South Korea regularly shelters defectors from communist North Korea, many of whom have made the harrowing and life-threatening journey from North Korea via China. Over 25,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean peninsula split at the end of the Korean War in 1953. But Tuesday's admission demonstrates that South Korea is unable to sufficiently protect North Korean defectors who have sought refuge in the south and who continue to face persecution from the brutal North Korean regime.

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.

But protecting North Koreans could be difficult because they have a hard time blending into South Korean society, experts say.

"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. Defectors, except for the very high-level ones, have had a very hard time economically," 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]."

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.

North Korea has reportedly told defectors that they will not face punishment if they return home, and has sent spies into China and South Korea to convince defectors to return, anonymous sources told Radio Free Asia.

"[North Korean] security officials are also visiting defector families and applying pressure to make them talk the defectors into returning home," the source said.

A smaller number of people have also fled to North Korea from South Korea since the 1950s, including six men and a woman who were held in a detention center for over a year after appearing in North Korea in 2012. The men were eventually repatriated to South Korea, while the woman died in North Korean custody.