SEOUL (Reuters) – The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans fleeing to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers had access to the database of a relocation agency, the South Korean Ministry of Unification said.
FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters on a 160 meter high tower in the North Korean propaganda village Gijungdong. This image was taken from the Tae Sung Freedom Village near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) in the demilitarized zone Separation of the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS / Kim Hong-Ji
The ministry said it had discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors were stolen by an infected computer with malicious software at an agency called Hana Center in the southern city of Gumi.
"The malware was planted by emails that were sent from an internal address," a ministry official told reporters on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the problem, and referred to an email Account of the Hana Center.
The Hana Center is one of 25 institutes run by the ministry across the country to help some 32,000 defectors adapt to life in the richer, democratic South with jobs, medical and legal support.
Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to escape poverty and political oppression, are a shame for North Korea. The state media often condemn them as "human scum" and accuse South Korean spies of abducting some of them.
The ministerial official declined to say whether it was believed North Korea was behind the hack or what the motive might have been. He said a police investigation is underway to find out who did it.
North Korean hackers have been accused of cyber attacks on South Korean state authorities and corporations in the past.
North Korea stole classified information from the Ministry of Defense and a shipbuilder of the South last year, while a crypto currency filed for bankruptcy following a cyberattack connected with the North.
The North Korean state media have denied these cyberattacks.
Recent data breaches have come at a delicate time for the two Koreas, who have rapidly improved their relations after years of confrontation.
The Ministry of Co-operation announced that it notified the defectors concerned, and there were no reports of adverse effects of the data breach.
"We are sorry that this has happened and will seek to prevent a recurrence," said the ministerial official.
Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television star, have disappeared in recent years to later appear in the North Korean state media, criticizing South Korea and the fate of the defectors.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Robert Birsel