SEOUL, South Korea — The personal information of nearly 1,000 North Koreans who defected to South Korea has been leaked after unknown hackers gained access to a resettlement agency’s database, the South Korean Unification Ministry said on Friday.
The ministry said it discovered last week that the names, birth dates and addresses of 997 defectors had been stolen through a computer infected with malicious software at an agency called the Hana center, in the southern city of Gumi.
A ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told reporters that the malware had been planted through emails sent from a Hana center email account.
The Hana center is among 25 institutes that the Unification Ministry runs across South Korea to help some 32,000 defectors adjust to life in the country by providing jobs, medical and legal support.
Defectors, most of whom risked their lives to flee poverty and political oppression, are a source of shame for North Korea. Its state media often denounces them as “human scum” and accuses South Korean spies of kidnapping some of them.
The ministry official declined to say if North Korea was believed to have been behind the hacking or what the motive might have been, saying that a police investigation was underway.
The Unification Ministry said that it was notifying the defectors whose data was stolen and that there had been no reports of consequences from the breach.
North Korean hackers have been accused of staging cyberattacks on South Korean state agencies and businesses before, and of being behind the 2014 hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment as well as attacks on financial institutions around the world.
In South Korea, the North is believed to have stolen classified documents from the Defense Ministry and a shipbuilder last year, and a cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy after a cyberattack linked to the North.
North Korean state media has denied that the country was behind those cyberattacks.
The latest data breach comes at a delicate time for the two Koreas, which have been rapidly improving their relations after years of confrontation.
Several defectors, including one who became a South Korean television celebrity, have disappeared in recent years, only to turn up later in North Korean state media criticizing the South.