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Defectors’ private info hacked from Hana Center computer

Dec 29,2018
Private information about nearly a thousand North Korean defectors was hacked from a computer at a government-affiliated defector settlement organization earlier this month, the Unification Ministry said Friday.

The computer belonged to the North Gyeongsang branch of the Hana Center, which helps North Korean defectors settle in the South. It was hacked sometime before Dec. 19, according to a preliminary investigation by the North Gyeongsang Provincial Government and the Hana Foundation that was conducted on that day.

A file containing the names, birthdates and addresses of 997 North Korean defectors mostly settled around North Gyeongsang was hacked, the ministry confirmed in a press release.

The Unification Ministry, which oversees a total of 25 Hana Centers nationwide, asked the National Police Agency to investigate the hacking. A ministry official said he could not comment further on the matter due to the police inquiry but added that the hacking was confirmed by an “agency related to cyber operations,” possibly referring to the National Intelligence Service.

The hacking apparently occurred after a Hana Center employee opened a file attached to an email that contained malware. The code allowed the hackers to access a spreadsheet on the computer that contained the information, and possibly other documents as well, though those files did not contain private information, the official said.

While they are technically private corporations, Hana Centers are directed by the government to provide counseling and other types of support to North Korean defectors who settle in the South.

Employees at the center are required by the Unification Ministry to hold sensitive and personal information related to defectors on computers not connected to the internet. The worker in question, however, kept the file on a regular computer that was online and failed to take measures to keep the file secure, the official said.

The Unification Ministry has since contacted each and every one of the defectors whose information was leaked to alert them of the hacking, and last week ordered a complete review of information security at all Hana Centers.

“We deeply apologize to the many escapees from North Korea who have been affected by the incident, and will take measures to ensure that private information is protected,” the ministry’s official statement read.

The likelihood that the hacking was conducted by North Korea has been raised by analysts and local media, since defectors from the North are considered enemies of the state by Pyongyang.

North Korea reportedly operates one of the most effective hacking organizations in the world, successfully stealing more than $650 million from more than 100 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges around the world, according to the U.S. media company GlobalPost.

Its Reconnaissance General Bureau has hacked South Korean government agencies in the past, like in 2017, when its agents allegedly breached the servers of the South’s Defense Ministry to uncover military plans.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]