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Refugee or spy? South Korea reviews its standards

Nearly half of the North Korean spies caught in South Korea over the past decade made it into the South after posing as refugees.

Shortly after Park Ji-eun arrived in South Korea, intelligence agents demanded to know every detail of her life, where in North Korea she had come from, how she managed to escape, and where all her family members were. All North Korean refugees who make it to Seoul go through this same intense two-month interrogation process.

The questioning was Ms. Park’s first experience in her new home. At 25, she fled North Korea out of frustration with the lack of opportunity there.

“It was difficult recalling all the details. The agents were really meticulous and sometimes aggressive, so it was stressful, but I understand the need to protect the country,” says Park, who now, more than a decade later, operates a business teaching sewing skills in a suburb of Seoul. 

The process of vetting newly arrived North Koreans has faced renewed scrutiny since earlier this month when an opposition lawmaker, citing Ministry of Justice data, announced that about half of the North Korean spies caught in South Korea in the past decade made it into the South after posing as refugees. 

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According to the justice ministry, 49 people have been arrested as North Korean spies since 2003. Of those, 21 posed as refugees when entering the country. The ministry also reported that the number of arrests has increased in recent years, with only two made from 2007-2009, nine made in 2012 alone, and four so far this year. 

Analysts say the process of interrogating new arrivals is extremely strict and hard on the North Koreans, but it remains impossible to guarantee that no spies ever make it through. As the statistics show, officials aren’t always able to tell the truth tellers from the pretenders. 

Excessive interrogation techniques have the risk of being too hard on innocents. “If I was in the government, I would be really worried about this situation, both about the possibility of spies getting in and also the risk of accusing or deporting someone who really is a refugee in need of resettlement,” says Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. 

While the combat phase of the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement in 1953, the two Koreas have remained antagonistic ever since and have used espionage to gain insight into what’s happening on the other side of the DMZ. In recent years, inter-Korean relations have been particularly frosty: the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship created a tense mood with increased concern over the possibility of conflict.  

In 2012, 1,509 North Korean refugees arrived in South Korea, according to the Ministry of Unification, which works toward the unification of Korea. After arriving, North Koreans claiming to be refugees are interrogated by the National Intelligence Service. 

During the interrogation process, the North Koreans are cut off from any outside contact and are not provided legal representation. The first six weeks of interrogation are done in a group setting and the last two weeks are the most intense, with each North Korean interrogated individually.

In the South Korean public there remains some fear over what North Korean spies could be capable of if they did make it to the South. In one particularly vivid example from 2010, two North Korean spies who entered the South posing as refugees were arrested for plotting to assassinate Hwang Jang-yeop, a former North Korean government official and the highest ranking North Korean ever to defect to the South. 

North Korean spies are also provided extensive training to allow them to pass themselves off convincingly as refugees. “Given how extremely well trained North Korean reconnaissance bureaus are and given the fact that there are now so many refugees coming every year, the screening process can’t really be adequate,” says Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based military historian and author of two books on the Korean War. 

“South Korea’s greatest strength is that it’s an open, democratic society, but that openness also makes it easier to infiltrate,” Salmon added. 

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But some analysts say the program of interrogating new arrivals is already very strict as it is, and there isn’t much room to make it tighter. It is also stressful for newly arrived North Koreans.

“The North Koreans are coming from a difficult situation and it’s really hard to have to go through another tough process right when they arrive here. If they did try to make the process tougher, they’d be risking violating the subjects’ human rights,” says Markus Bell, a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University currently writing a dissertation on North Koreans living in South Korea and Japan.  

North Korean refugees are resettled in the South as part of perhaps the most generous program of integration found anywhere in the world. After their interrogation, they participate in a government resettlement program, after which they are given citizenship and financial aid to start their new lives. Some South Koreans see their ethnic brethren from the North as a drain on public resources, or as lazy.

Many North Koreans describe dealing with discrimination while living in the South, but Park, the North Korean refugee turned entrepreneur, says her embrace of South Korea’s culture of hard work has allowed her to integrate successfully. “I know some North Koreans are discriminated against, but I haven’t faced any bias because I work very hard,” says Ms. Park.