Thae Yong-ho had phone hacked by North-linked group

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Thae Yong-ho had phone hacked by North-linked group

A high-profile North Korean defector who announced he would run in a district race in April’s general elections was the target of smartphone hacking by a North Korea-linked organization, according to a cybersecurity expert in Seoul.

Moon Jong-hyun, a representative of the cybersecurity company East Security, told Yonhap News Agency that the group obtained a host of information such as a list of contacts, recorded conversations and text messages stored on a personal phone belonging to Thae Yong-ho, who last week said he would run as a candidate of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP).

Thae served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain until 2016, when he escaped to South Korea with his family. He has been a vocal pundit and media fixture critical of Pyongyang ever since, and said he was prompted to become a South Korean lawmaker in order to prove the strength of the South’s democracy and challenge the incumbent administration’s North Korea policy.

This is not the first time a high-profile defector in the South has been the target of cyberattacks by Pyongyang, which operates various groups highly specialized in cyberwarfare.

Ji Seong-ho, another defector turned LKP recruit who used to run a North Korea-focused human rights group in Seoul, said defectors in the South working in activism have habitually had their phones and email accounts targeted by North Korean hackers.

“Defectors are subject to hacking attempts regardless of time and place,” Ji told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday. “Usually these attacks are concentrated around the holidays, so [we like to] call them ‘holiday presents.’”

While these hacking attempts often resemble ordinary voice phishing scams, Ji said a variety of these attacks came in the form of emails impersonating South Korean government officials or were from internet addresses based in China.

Because of the frequency of such attempts, Ji said activists like him were not too threatened by hacking from the North.

“But we are careful about our phones, particularly due to the risk of [personal information] leaks,” Ji said. “Defectors are most concerned about threats of physical terrorism” that may be facilitated by such leaks, he added.

Concerns have also been raised about Thae’s physical security in the wake of his candidacy announcement last week, given precedents of high-ranking North Korean defectors in the South becoming targets of assassination. In a press conference Sunday, Thae told reporters at the National Assembly he believed the South Korean government would guarantee everything related to his political campaign “in accordance with the principles enshrined in the law and the Constitution.”

Both Tae and Ji were recruited by the LKP in recent weeks as potential candidates for the upcoming general elections, as part of the party’s attempt to make criticism of the Moon Jae-in administration’s North Korea policy the centerpiece of its campaign.

On Monday, the LKP officially announced its merger with the New Conservative Party and another minor party into a party called the United Future Party.

North Korean state media on Thursday singled out Ji as a “criminal” who was attempting to raise his personal value in the South with anti-Pyongyang propaganda. No such criticism has yet been released with regards to Thae, who has previously been the target of bitter reproach by the regime’s propaganda outlets following his defection to the South.

BY PARK HAE-LEE , SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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