Hackers have stolen personal information about roughly 1,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea, according to South Korean media outlets, putting those individuals and their families still in the North at risk.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification said Friday that the names, addresses and dates of birth of 997 people had been stolen through an infected computer at a resettlement agency called the Hana Foundation, according to Yonhap News and other outlets. The ministry did not identify the hackers, however North Korea is known for launching almost constant cyberattacks on the South.
A nonprofit extension of the Ministry of Unification, the Hana Foundation runs about two dozen centers that assist people who manage to flee North Korea to integrate into South Korean society. The organization says that some 31,000 defectors, which the country regards as refugees, are living in the South.
Pyongyang is known to target defectors, with state media agencies once referring to people who flee North Korean borders as “human scum.”
The country has a long history of kidnapping people from South Korea, Japan and elsewhere and bringing them to the North. At least 25 defectors have reappeared in the North since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011, the New York Times reported. South Korean officials have investigated whether some of those people were kidnapped, or if they chose to return because their family in the North had been threatened.
In one case, a defector became a celebrity in the South until she disappeared, only to resurface in the North in a propaganda video.
South Korean officials said that an internal email opened by an employee at the Hana Foundation spread the malware responsible for the leak, according to the Wall Street Journal. The worker reportedly did not follow procedures meant to protect information on defectors, like encrypting the data and keeping it off internet-connected machines.
North Korea, while not officially accused in the hack, is known to have sophisticated cyber-capabilities. Pyongyang-backed hackers are believed to be behind major hacks like the one on Sony in 2014 and regular attacks on South Korea. South Korean officials have said they’re struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of attacks from the North.