A South Korean court on Thursday boosted the amount the government must pay a group of North Korean defectors who say a leak of their identities led to retaliation against their families in the North.
Five North Koreans who arrived in South Korea in 2006 said 22 family members left behind in the North were probably sent to political prisons after Seoul leaked their defections to the media. The defectors had sought $1 million in compensation from the South Korean government.
In October, a Seoul district court ordered a combined compensation of $50,620, citing the leak of personal information. But it ruled there wasn't enough evidence of the alleged punishment of family members. The defectors appealed.
The Seoul High Court ruled Thursday that the government must pay $110,500, citing the North Koreans' distress about the possibility of reprisals, even though there wasn't confirmation that their family members were punished.
"There is not enough evidence that they were all executed or detained in political prisons," presiding Judge Roh Tae-ak said in the verdict. "But there is believed to be a considerable probability that serious harm may have happened to some of their family members."
The judge said the government must use the case to improve protection of defectors.
Lee Gwang-su, the defector who spearheaded the legal action, said he wasn't satisfied with the compensation but hadn't decided whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Lee, a 42-year-old former city official in the eastern North Korean coastal town of Wonsan, said he fled North Korea by boat in March 2006 with his wife, two sons and a friend looking for political freedom. His group initially attempted to go to Japan with the goal of eventually moving to the United States, but a violent storm and high waves pushed the boat to South Korean shores.
Lee, who now lives in California, said he believes his family members have been detained in political prison camps in the North.
"There is no other place where they can be sent. The fact that their family members defected to an enemy state makes them a subject that must be gotten rid of," he said after the verdict. "People who live in North Korea know that."
More than 21,000 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, in 1953. Defections have surged in recent years as North Korea's economic woes and food shortages have reportedly worsened.