A senior North Korean diplomat who was acting ambassador to Kuwait told his daughter they were going to defect to the South while pretending to drive her to school, Ryu Hyun-woo told media on Monday. South Korea’s border with the North is one of the most heavily fortified in the world
“Come with Mom and Dad to find freedom,” Ryu recalled telling his daughter in an interview with CNN, the teenager was “shocked” at the sudden suggestion that would change their lives, but responded “okay”, he said and he took them instead to the South Korean embassy.
Ryu and his family reached the capitalist, democratic South in September 2019 but their arrival was kept secret until last week, and the interview aired Monday was his first media communication. About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty to settle in the South, almost all of them first secretly crossing the porous border with China. Defections by senior officials are rare, although Ryu’s arrival came just two months after the North’s former acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil also sought asylum.
Tae Yong-ho is another high-profile defector who fled his post as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain in 2016. He was elected a South Korean opposition MP last year after publishing a best-selling memoir that earned him celebrity-like status. After more than a year in the South, Ryu asked his daughter what she liked the most about her new home. “I like the fact that I can use the internet as much as I want,” she replied. Ryu now worries about the safety of his and his wife’s extended families remaining in the North.
The isolated regime is known to punish relatives of privileged defectors as a warning to others contemplating similar decisions. “I think that North Korea having such feudal collective familial punishment in the 21st century is appalling,” said the former diplomat, who teared up while talking about his relatives, including his 83-year-old mother. “Any thought of them being punished for what I’ve done just hurts my heart.” 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.
He became temporary 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. As a former insider, he said international sanctions against the regime were having an impact on the cash-strapped state. “The current sanctions on North Korea are unprecedented and strong… I think sanctions against North Korea should continue.”