Those who know Yoo in South Korea say that if he was a spy, he hid it extremely well. He stood out for only one reason: Compared with many defectors bewildered by the capitalist and high-pressure South, Yoo, who arrived in 2004, adjusted unusually well to the free world. He earned a degree from Yonsei, one of Seoul’s top universities, and packed his days with social activities — speaking engagements, dinner parties, weddings, weekly meetings with four or five defector groups.
Yoo was hired at City Hall in 2011, and the job suited him well, friends and colleagues say. He assisted those in need of Seoul’s welfare programs, including many defectors. One day, a network television camera followed him on the job as he visited an elderly defector confused by tax documents.
“Defectors trust me more because I understand them better,” Yoo said as the camera rolled.
But Yoo was different from most defectors — and he defected successfully to South Korea only because he kept a secret when he first arrived, Yoo’s attorneys now admit. He had indeed been born in North Korea, but he was a Chinese citizen — meaning he carried a Chinese passport and could enter and exit the North with freedom inconceivable to the average North Korean. That Yoo held a Chinese passport was an important detail, because Chinese — even those born in the North — are not entitled to automatic South Korean citizenship, as are typical defectors. Yoo’s attorneys say Yoo lied to interrogators about his identity when he arrived, and he received years of aid, earmarked for defectors, to which he was not entitled.
There are some 4,000 Chinese in the North, living in pockets in Pyongyang or, as Yoo’s family did, along the northwestern border. His father was a city worker and his mother a nurse; both were born in China. When they ran low on food, Yoo was able to cross into China and earn money by selling deer meat, mushrooms and North Korean-made pottery.
Still, after Yoo arrived in the South, he gave friends here the impression his family was no different than others in North Korea, something that has become a point of bitterness and suspicion for other defectors. He spoke about his family as many defectors do — sparingly but with concern. He did occasionally express hope about reuniting with his only sister, younger by seven years. But Yoo never mentioned that she had moved from North Korea — where she, too, had been born and raised — to China in 2011.
Yoo, like some higher-profile defectors, also kept in touch with a member of South Korea’s NIS who served as a de facto minder. When his sister, Yoo Ga-ryeo, set out for South Korea on Oct. 30, Yoo sent a hopeful text message to the NIS agent. Yoo did not mention that his sister’s defection would require the same deception he had used.