A North Korean defector working in Seoul City Hall has been arrested on suspicion of spying, after allegedly handing over a list of 10,000 defectors living in Seoul to the North Korean government. The incident is not just a gross violation of South Korea’s national security and the personal security of those whose personal details were on the list. It also represents a major setback in the already challenging process of building trust between North and South Koreans as part of integrating defectors into society.
The man, named only as Mr. Yoo by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, came to the South via China in 2004, and studied Chinese and business before working at a trading company. He started work at the Seoul city government in 2011 and was responsible for collating information and providing assistance to North Korean defectors in South Korea. South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo reported that his duties included meeting regularly with families, providing advice and counselling by phone and collecting details on the defectors’ lives in the South. Authorities became suspicious when they discovered that he was making frequent trips to China and it is believed he may have crossed back to North Korea.
Ministry of Unification spokesperson Kim Hyeong Seok indicated embarrassment over the incident and asked that it not impact negatively on North Korean defectors settling in Southern society. He said, “The government will do its best through the settlement support system to ensure no such oversight happens again.” Investigations are now under way into several other North Korean defectors also suspected of spying.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Yoo joined the Seoul government with the express purpose of collecting information for the North Korean government or whether he was coerced into doing so by threats to his family, who remain in North Korea. Regardless of why he was spying, with this betrayal of trust, there are already calls for tougher screening of defectors, more on-going surveillance of their movements and revision of the defector settlement system.
North Korean defectors employed in government in South Korea are rare and often held up as examples of successful integration by the South Korean administration. Lee Ae-Ran, who defected in 1997 and went on to set up a renowned Korean cookery school in the South, stood in 2008 in the National Assembly elections for a political party broadly representing those of North Korean origin. Although she was not elected, her running was nevertheless symbolic of a more prominent position for North Koreans in South Korean public life. In the 2012 National Assembly elections another defector, Cho Myung-Chul, was appointed to a seat by President Lee Myung Bak’s ruling Han-Nara Party. Prior to this, Mr. Cho was in charge the Unification Education Institute arm of the Ministry of Unification.
As part of government efforts to decentralise settlement services for defectors and establish defectors who have “made it” as the avant-garde of future arrivals, some North Koreans have found themselves working alongside South Korean officials to aid their brethren in getting to grips with life in the South. The strategy makes perfect sense, as more experienced defectors are well placed to take on the task. However, the on-going conflict with the North adds an element of risk to giving such responsibility to defectors, as many in South Korea are now arguing.
Indeed, this is not the first incident of spying by North Korean defectors in the South, though it is the first major case involving a civil servant. Prior to his death in 2010, high profile defector Hwang Jang-Yop claimed that there were up to fifty thousand North Korean spies in South Korea, who, he alleged, would seek to seriously destabilise South Korean society should war break out.
There are plenty of people within South Korea who, regardless of past steps taken towards reconciliation between the two Koreas, continue to apply the adage of “once a traitor, always a traitor” to North Korean defectors. They question whether it is possible to ever completely re-programme someone’s identity after crossing over, to ensure true allegiance to the South Korean state. In the wake of this incident, South Korean netizens are now questioning whether South Korea should continue to operate its open door policy towards North Korean defectors.
Others hope that this is a one-off, an unfortunate (albeit major) glitch which hopefully won’t happen again. The cost is likely to be a decreased role for North Koreans in managing and leading parts of the settlement support system. It also represents a blow to the prospects for any North Koreans seeking public office or government jobs. It will also likely lead to increased distrust of North Korean defectors trying to make their way day to day in a society which already views them as second class citizens, and outsiders to be treated with suspicion.
The majority of defectors genuinely trying to make good in South Korea will be hoping that with time the impact of this incident will recede enough for them to be able to continue the arduous task of earning the trust and respect of their Southern co-nationals.