Lie de­tec­tors, soli­tary: How S Korea screens refugees

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

SEOUL: South Korea has spent decades screen­ing refugees from a hos­tile neigh­bor but some enemy agents man­age to get through, un­der­lin­ing the chal­lenges Western na­tions face in deal­ing with a far larger in­flux of peo­ple es­cap­ing the war in Syria. Seoul uses lie de­tec­tors, in­ter­ro­ga­tion and a screen­ing process that in­cludes keep­ing peo­ple in soli­tary con­fine­ment to catch North Korean agents among gen­uine asy­lum seek­ers.

Still, be­tween 2003 and 2013, of the 49 North Korean spies ap­pre­hended in the South, 21 en­tered the coun­try pos­ing as refugees, ac­cord­ing to the coun­try’s jus­tice min­istry. “The ques­tion of spies slip­ping through is al­ways a prob­lem, and we need to make the process more metic­u­lous and ad­vanced,” said Shin Kyung-min, the rank­ing op­po­si­tion mem­ber of the South Korean par­lia­ment’s in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee.

“But it’s not like we can stop tak­ing in North Korean de­fec­tors be­cause of that,” Shin told Reuters. There are grow­ing calls in the United States and in Europe to bar tens of thou­sands of refugees flee­ing Syria’s civil war fol­low­ing this month’s Paris at­tacks be­cause of con­cerns that vet­ting pro­cesses are not strin­gent enough and that ex­trem­ists plan­ning at­tacks could slip through.

More than 1,000 North Kore­ans de­fect to the South ev­ery year and are held for up to 180 days while they are screened. If they clear that, the refugees are trans­ferred to a re­set­tle­ment com­plex, which they can­not leave, for an­other 12 weeks to help them ad­just to life in the South.

New North Korean ar­rivals to the South, who typ­i­cally en­ter via a third coun­try, are brought to a fa­cil­ity in Si­he­ung on the southern out­skirts of Seoul. There, they are sep­a­rated for ques­tion­ing on their back­grounds and lives in the North, spend­ing time in soli­tary but com­fort­able rooms.

No ex­cep­tion is made for fam­i­lies or chil­dren, who are taken from their par­ents and face sim­i­lar ques­tion­ing, ac­cord­ing to a civic group. “It was like writ­ing my au­to­bi­og­ra­phy,” said a 59-year-old fe­male de­fec­tor who spent three months at the in­ter­ro­ga­tion cen­tre from 2012 and asked that she not be named be­cause she is not sup­posed to talk about the process.

“I talked about my whole life in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and got checked,” she told Reuters. “I came here to change my life so there was noth­ing that I was afraid of.”

Lie de­tec­tors are used as a ba­sic tool, as many de­fec­tors from the iso­lated and im­pov­er­ished North are un­doc­u­mented, a for­mer Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice of­fi­cial said. A typ­i­cal in­ter­ro­ga­tion starts with the de­fec­tor’s ad­dress, and the pro­gram has built a data­base with lo­ca­tions, names and other de­tails to com­pare with their story, Shin, the law­maker said.

The Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle. The pro­gram has suc­ceeded in weed­ing out about 120 bo­gus de­fec­tors and 14 spies, lo­cal me­dia re­ports last year said, cit­ing in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials. Fake de­fec­tors are be­lieved mainly to con­sist of eth­nic Korean cit­i­zens of main­land China. The num­bers could not be in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied. Those found not to be North Korean de­fec­tors are de­ported, while those de­ter­mined to be spies are pros­e­cuted, ac­cord­ing to South Korean au­thor­i­ties.


Py­ongyang is be­lieved to have be­gun send­ing spies pos­ing as de­fec­tors to the South in the late 1990s when large batches of refugees fled a mas­sive, deadly famine.

Be­fore that, South Korea oc­ca­sion­ally caught armed spies who had in­fil­trated from across the mil­i­tarised border, or via small sub­marines in the dark of night. Some con­fronta­tions be­tween North Korean agents and South Korean se­cu­rity forces ended in deadly gun­fights. —Reuters

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