Yoo, 32, is being held at a detention center on the outskirts of Seoul, his case a reminder of how this peninsula’s messy and sometimes covert conflict has left the South on edge, with people here unsure whom they can trust.
Defectors from the North are increasingly facing the brunt of this suspicion. As more flee to the South — some 25,000 in total, nearly all coming in the past two decades — South Korean analysts and government officials say the North has expanded a program used to sow anxiety and collect information, both by disguising spies as defectors and by pressuring defectors to become spies after they arrive. The South, in turn, has raised its guard about those entering the country, changing its protocol three years ago to allow for lengthier interrogations of arrivals from the North.
Yoo’s trial, which began May 9 and could continue for weeks, weighs two conflicting scenarios. In the first, argued by prosecutors, Yoo was threatened by the North into serving as a spy. In the other, put forward by the defense, Yoo is an innocent defector whose sister — after attempting her own defection to the South in October — was coerced into a wrongful confession by intelligence agents who interrogated her for more than two months and then held her in near-solitude for several months more.
The account of Yoo’s case — based on an extensive review of legal documents, as well as interviews with Yoo, his attorneys, his sister and his former colleagues, acquaintances and roommates — casts new light on the way defectors are treated when they arrive in the South and after they settle. A brief statement about the interrogation tactics was provided by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), which led the investigation of Yoo’s sister. South Korean prosecutors by custom do not speak with the media before a trial and declined several requests.
In the past five years, South Korea has arrested 14 defectors accused of being spies — something previously unheard of — and Yoo is perhaps the highest-profile among them. Before his arrest, Yoo was working at City Hall as the first defector to become a Seoul city servant, and he occasionally visited elementary and high schools, speaking about his frustration with the North’s government and expressing hope for Korean unification. Soon after Yoo’s arrest Jan. 10, the South said it would strengthen background checks for defectors who apply for public-sector jobs.
Yoo maintains his innocence and said in a recent interview at the Seoul Detention Center that he feels “totally helpless.”