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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) is under indictment on suspicion of selling the personal information of 48 North Korean defectors, local prosecutors confirmed to NK News on Monday.
The Goyang Branch of Uijeongbu District’s Public Prosecutors’ Office said the South Korean official, named only as Lee, was charged with divulging official secrets – among other undisclosed offenses – on September 6.
Lee is accused of selling the addresses and mobile phone numbers of 48 escapees to a broker named Bae, who is reportedly a defector. Lee is accused of handing over information around 20 times between 2010 and 2015, earning KRW14,750,000 (around USD$13,097) in the process.
The Prosecutors’ Office said Bae has also been brought to trial for passing the information to another broker. Bae asked Lee to provide the addresses, reportedly, to reclaim money owed by defectors he had helped get to South Korea.
Lee worked at Hanawon, a settlement support center responsible for handling defector arrivals after screening by the National Intelligence Service (NIS), between 2004 and 2007. He had been a sixth-grade civil servant – with first being the highest and ninth the lowest – since 2014, according to the Prosecutors’ Office.
“[Lee] has been removed from the position, and disciplinary proceedings are in the process in accordance with related laws,” an official at the unification ministry – who wished to remain anonymous – told NK News.
“This is a personal allegation of wrongdoing and the trial is underway, so we ask for your understanding that we are unable to provide the details,” the MOU said, declining to confirm additional information including the time of Lee’s dismissal and what kind of information was given to the broker.
The case was made public on Friday night by Park Byeong-seug, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party, who said that Lee was able to extract personal information based on his experiences working at Hanawon.
Lee reportedly worked for the MOU’s Office for Economic Cooperation and Consultations prior to the accusation.
The MOU said the personal information of defectors is “confidential.”
The security and precariousness of defectors’ personal information in South Korea has come under the spotlight in recent months. In late July, a North Korean defector who had attempted to re-enter South Korea after returning to the North last year was arrested on suspicion of violating the National Security Act.
The defector, identified as Kang Cheol Woo, was alleged to have returned to the North possessing a mobile phone containing contact details of North Korean defectors and the police officers in charge of protecting them.
In the aftermath of the re-defection of Jon Hye Song, known as Lim Ji-hyun in the South, the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) instructed police stations across the country to locate around 900 North Korean defectors the Ministry of Unification (MOU) had reported missing.
Meanwhile, the number of North Koreans fleeing to the South fell by 12.7 percent between January and August compared to the same period last year, Park’s office said on Sunday.
Preliminary statistics released by the MOU showed that 780 North Koreans fled to South Korea between January and the end of August, compared to 894 in the same period last year, bringing the total number of defectors in the Republic of Korea to 30,992.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification