Senior North Korean diplomat defects to South

The number of North Koreans defecting to the South has dropped sharply as a result of increasingly strict measures against COVID-19 [File: Kim Won Jin/AFP]
The number of North Koreans defecting to the South has dropped sharply as a result of increasingly strict measures against COVID-19 [File: Kim Won Jin/AFP]

A senior North Korean diplomat who was acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to the South with his family in 2019, it emerged in reports on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo reached South Korea in September 2019 and sought asylum, according to the Maeil Business daily, but his arrival was kept secret until now, the Yonhap news agency confirmed Ryu had defected but said it could not confirm the timing. About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty for the South, mostly by crossing the border with China, although defections by senior officials are rare. If confirmed, Ryu’s arrival would have come about two months after Jo Song Gil, the acting ambassador to North Korea’s embassy in Italy, entered South Korea after disappearing in late 2018.

“I decided to defect because I wanted to offer my child a better future,” the Maeil Business newspaper cited the former diplomat as saying. Ryu was appointed acting ambassador in September 2017 after Kuwait expelled envoy So Chang Sik following the Gulf nation’s adoption of a UN resolution over Pyongyang’s weapons programmes. According to reports, Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, the former head of Office 39, which manages the secret funds of the North Korean leadership. Thae Yong Ho, another high-profile defector who fled his post as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain in 2016 and was elected a South Korean opposition MP last year, described Ryu as part of Pyongyang’s “core elite”.

But he added: “No matter how privileged your life is in North Korea, your mind changes when you go abroad and draw comparisons.” The North has tightened border security as part of its defences against the coronavirus and the number of defectors plunged in 2020, but Tae said leader Kim Jong Un “will not be able to stop North Koreans who long for freedom from going to South Korea forever”.

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