In every way, Yu Woo-seong was a model defector. In his early 30s, he was smart, friendly, ambitious, and well liked.
Trained as a doctor in North Korea, he eschewed the competitive South Korean medical school system and instead pursued a bachelor's degree in business and Chinese at a prominent Seoul university. Although he was still adapting to his new environment, Yu completed his university studies in 2011, having been in South Korea for less than six years.
While taking on organizing roles in Seoul-based clubs and organizations for North Korean defectors, Yu gained entry into a master's degree program in education and social welfare. Less than one year into his graduate studies he was hired by Seoul's city hall as a special attaché for North Korean defector projects. He balanced this demanding, full-time role with being president of a North-South youth organization. In addition to his study and work commitments, Yu was in high demand as a "reunification lecturer," giving information to South Korean government departments and schools about life in North Korea.
By most measures, there were few if any traces of Yu's "North Koreanness." Although his accent would, on occasion, hint at his foreign origins, he seemed comfortable in North Korean, South Korean, and Western social circles. In every way, he was a model assimilation case.
All that changed early this year, when Yu was arrested as a North Korean spy.
The evidence against Yu was based on testimony from his sister, Yu Ga-Ryeo, collected during her own defection interview with South Korea's National Information Service (NIS) in October 2012. During the intense and highly secretive interrogation that all aspiring defectors are subject to upon entering the country, Yu's sister "confessed" that her brother was a spy (She also implicated herself in the alleged espionage activity). In January 2013, the South Korean government accused Yu of giving vital information-including a list of defectors residing in South Korea (information he was privy to through his work at City Hall) - to North Korean authorities located in China.
The plot took a further twist on March 5, when, after Yu had spent 179 days in detention, his sister retracted her testimony, claiming that she had been subject to physical and psychological abuse at the hands of NIS agents and deceived into making the confession. Later, she also spoke out against the abuses she claimed she had suffered at the hands of NIS agents, including reportedly being kicked and hit in the head. "I copied [the confession] with my own handwriting and signed it. I'm really sorry for what I have done to my brother," she said.
After being released from custody, Yu's sister was sent to China, where she has steadfastly maintained that her brother is innocent. News Tapa, a Korean investigative journalism outlet, probed the details of the case and agreed with Yu's sister's story, concluding that the evidence against Yu was fabricated under circumstances of torture. The NIS maintains that violence was not used to extract the confession from Yu's sister.
The details of this case have remained sketchy at best, as both sides have accused the other of deception. One detail, however, has emerged as incontrovertible fact: Yu and his family are Chinese nationals who were born in North Korea.