The 48-year-old, identified only by the surname Lee, was removed from office by the ministry in July 2017 for having passed on private information about North Korean defectors, such as addresses and phone numbers, to another North Korean defector surnamed Bae, 38. Bae, a broker who helps North Koreans escape to the South, paid Lee 570 million won in total for the information from September 2013 to December 2015.
Lee was prosecuted in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, on charges of bribery and leaking confidential government information.
“As an official of the Ministry of Unification, Lee had a responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of North Korean refugees. Providing their information is a grave dereliction of duty,” the Uijeongbu District Court said of the conviction.
Bae received a fine of 500 million won for bribing a government official. According to the district court, Bae, who defected from the North in 2006, used the information to track down defectors who didn’t pay him the promised broker’s fee.
Experts warn that leaking North Korean defectors’ information can threaten the defectors and their families. Defectors who are identified by North Korean authorities can be blackmailed into moving back to North Korea. The communist state has toughened punishment for defectors since 2014, sentencing them to forced labor in reformation camps, according to a report by the Korea Institute for National Unification. This is among the harshest sentences possible in North Korea, the report said, second only to execution by firing squad.
In November, the personal data of 997 North Korean escapees living in South Korea was leaked after a computer at the Unification Ministry’s resettlement center in North Gyeongsang Province was hacked.
Rep. Park Byeong-seug of the ruling Democratic Party reported that cyberattack attempts on the Ministry of Unification were on a steep rise, with 172 incidents in 2015, 260 in 2016, 336 in 2017 and 435 in 2018 as of August.
“The Ministry of Unification holds high-profile security information such as North Korean defector information,” Rep. Park said, calling for comprehensive measures to combat major hacking risks.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org)