NPR logo Amid Kim Jong Nam Furor, South Korea Hikes Reward For North Korean Defectors

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Amid Kim Jong Nam Furor, South Korea Hikes Reward For North Korean Defectors

The North Korean flag flaps behind barbed wire at the North Korean Embassy on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

The North Korean flag flaps behind barbed wire at the North Korean Embassy on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in two decades, South Korea is increasing the reward money it's offering North Korean defectors for classified information. And the hike in the cash reward is no pittance: The South Korean government is quadrupling the amount, from roughly $217,000 up to $860,000.

That sum would be paid to "people who provide intelligence and knowledge that can enhance South Korea's security," the Yonhap news agency reports.

As NPR's Elise Hu notes, the boost to reward pay is intended to alleviate the financial burdens of defection. "Defecting from North Korea is not only dangerous," Elise tells our Newscast unit, "it's expensive, as many defectors rely on networks of human smugglers and brokers who demand large payments."

"One of the biggest reasons why North Koreans are hesitant about defecting is because they are fearful of making a living after they come to South Korea," an official with South Korea's Ministry of Unification explained, according to Yonhap. "The planned changes can alleviate such worries to a certain extent."

And South Korea is interested in obtaining North Korean military equipment, too. The country is offering payouts to North Korean soldiers who turn in weapons such as armored vehicles and artillery.

The move comes as the complicated saga surrounding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un's half-brother continues to unfold. Malaysian officials, who have been investigating Kim Jong Nam's Feb. 13 death at Kuala Lumpur's airport, have been whittling their list of suspects in what they believe was an outright assassination.

Malaysian authorities recently released a North Korean chemist from custody because of a lack of evidence then deported him, according to The Associated Press. After his release, the wire service reports the chemist, Ri Jong Chol, accused Malaysian police of threatening to kill his family unless he confessed.

Malaysia also says it is expelling North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol, declaring the man "persona non grata" and giving him 48 hours to leave the country. The expulsion is intended as a reprisal for Kang's accusations that "the Malaysian government had something to hide and that Malaysia has colluded with outside powers to defame" North Korea, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in a statement, according to the AP.

Malaysia, which was once one of the few countries friendly with North Korea, has had a significant falling out with the hermit kingdom over the death of Kim Jong Nam. Malaysian authorities say Kim was killed with VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon, and they have arrested two women who appeared to accost him in the airport's surveillance footage.

Pyongyang, for its part, disputes this account, saying the man — whom North Korea has not officially recognized as Kim Jong Nam — "probably died of a heart attack because he suffered from heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure."

The U.S. and South Korean officials attribute Kim's death to North Korean agents.