Hacker leaks details of 1,000 North Korean defectors

Personal information from hundreds of defectors from North Korea has reportedly been stolen. The classified data leak could put people who have fled to the South at risk from potential retribution from Pyongyang.

The personal information of 997 North Koreans who have defected to the South has been hacked, South Korean officials said on Friday. The security breach happened at a government facility that helps people who have fled the repressive regime in the North settle in South Korea.

The classified data was leaked after an unsuspecting worker opened a mail containing malware at one of about 25 "Hana Centers" offering support for tens of thousands North Koreans living in the South. 

Authorities from South Korea's Unification Ministry inspected the computers at all centers but said no other leaks were found.

"We apologize to defectors from the North. We will make utmost efforts to protect their personal information and prevent any recurrence of such an incident," the Unification Ministry said in a statement. 

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

A trip to the North

The South Korean participants, who had been selected by a computerized lottery system, were taken by bus to North Korea's Mount Kumgan resort in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. Waiting lists for the reunions are long and as the would-be participants are often aged, some never get the chance: Last year alone, 3,800 South Koreans died without ever seeing their relatives

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Full of anticipation

The reunions were started after a historic North-South summit in 2000. Twenty have been held since then, with the last occurring in 2015. The meetings take place at moments when there is a thaw in relations between the two former warring nations. The system used to select the North Korean participants is unknown, but is thought to be based on loyalty to the regime.

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Arriving at customs

The participants will be allowed to meet six times for a total of 11 hours during their three-day stay, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap. Four of the originally 93 families from the South that were selected ended up cancelling, as family members were too ill to make the journey to the North.

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Old photos were all they had

Families were brutally rent asunder by the Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, meaning that the two Koreas are theoretically still at war. The Korean Peninsula remains divided by the DMZ. Many South Koreans with relatives in the North, like this man, cherished the photos that reminded them of their loved ones during the long separation.

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Aged and determined

Many of the participants are frail with age, but their burning desire to see their loved ones again has given them the strength necessary to undertake the journey. The meetings have in the past brought together siblings, parents and children and husbands and wives. But such meetings between immediate family members are getting rare. Most are now with close relatives such as cousins.

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Pain and joy

As could be expected, the meetings can be highly emotional experiences — they are likely to be the only, and last, time relatives get to see each other.

Joy and tears at Korean reunions

Making the most of a short visit

Many South Koreans bring presents of clothing, medications and food for their relatives in the North, whose population lives in relative poverty. But the most important gift is simply the fact that they can see and hold one another.

Fleeing poverty and repression 

The ministry declined to specify who may be behind the hack, or their motive. A police probe was underway.

Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of embarrassment for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as "human scum."

More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled the communist state since it was divided in 1948. It is very rare for them to cross the Korean border which is fortified with minefields and barbed wire, however. Most flee across the Yellow Sea into neighboring China before going to South Korea. 

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

A young leader

Kim Il Sung, the first and "eternal" president of North Korea, took power in 1948 with the support of the Soviet Union. The official calendar in North Korea begins with his birth year, 1912, designating it "Juche 1" after the state's Juche ideology. He was 41 when, as shown here, he signed the 1953 armistice that effectively ended the Korean War.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Hero worship

In the years and decades after the war, Pyongyang's propaganda machine worked hard to weave a mythical narrative around Kim Il Sung. His childhood and the time he spent fighting Japanese troops in the 1930s were embellished to portray him as an unrivaled military and political genius. At the 1980 party congress, Kim announced he would be succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Ruling to the end

In 1992, Kim Il Sung started writing and publishing his memoirs, entitled "Reminiscences: With the Century." Describing his childhood, the North Korean leader claims that he first joined an anti-Japanese rally at 6 years old and became involved with the independence struggle at 8. The memoirs remained unfinished at Kim Il Sung's death in 1994.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

In his father's footsteps

After spending years in the top tiers of the regime, Kim Jong Il took power after his father's death. Kim Jong Il's 16-year rule was marked by famine and economic crisis in an already impoverished country. However, the cult of personality surrounding him and his father, Kim Il Sung, grew even stronger.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Rising star

Historians outside North Korea believe Kim Jong Il was born in a military camp in eastern Russia, most likely in 1941. However, the leader's official biography claims it happened on the sacred Korean mountain Paektu, exactly 30 years after his father, on April 15, 1942. A North Korean legend says the birth was blessed by a new star and a double rainbow.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Family trouble

Kim Jong Il had three sons and two daughters with three different women. This 1981 photo shows Kim Jong Il sitting besides his son Kim Jong Nam, with his sister-in-law and her two children in the background. Kim Jong Nam was eventually assassinated in 2017.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Grooming a successor

In 2009, Western media reported that Kim Jong Il had picked his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take over as the head of the regime. The two appeared together at a military parade on 2010, a year before Kim Jong Il passed away.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty


According to Pyongyang, the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011 was marked by a series of mysterious events. State media reported that ice snapped loudly at a lake on the Paektu mountain during a sudden snowstorm, with a glowing message appearing on the rocks. After Kim Jong Il's death, a 22-meter (72-foot) statue of him was erected next to the one of his father (l.) in Pyongyang.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

Mysterious past

Kim Jong Un mostly stayed out of the spotlight before his ascent to power. His exact age is disputed, but he is believed to have been born between 1982 and 1984. He was reportedly educated in Switzerland. In 2013, he surprised the world by meeting with former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

A new cult

Like the leaders before him, Kim Jong Un is hallowed by the state's totalitarian regime. In 2015, South Korean media reported about a new teacher's manual in the North that claimed Kim Jong Un could drive at the age of 3. In 2017, state media said that a monument to the young leader would be build on Mount Paektu.

The truth and myths of the Kim dynasty

A Kim with a hydrogen bomb

Altough Kim took power at a younger age and with less of a public profile than his father and grandfather, he has managed to maintain his grip on power. The assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam in 2017 served to cement his reputation abroad as a merciless dictator. The North Korean leader has also vastly expanded the country's nuclear arsenal.

kw/kms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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