North Korean diplomat in Kuwait defects to South Korea, says he wants 'a better future' for his child

The escape comes after another defection just two months before.

Kayla Wong | January 26, 2021, 05:26 PM

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A North Korean diplomat in the Gulf country of Kuwait has defected to South Korea back in September 2019, Korean news outlet Maeil Business Newspaper reported on Monday, Jan. 25.

Escaped with wife and child

The diplomat, Ryu Hyun Woo, escaped with his wife and child in tow.

South Korean lawmaker Tae Yong Ho, who defected himself in 2016 when he was North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain, confirmed the escape, Reuters reported.

Ryu's defection took place just two months after another North Korean diplomat, the chargé d’affaires at the North Korean embassy in Italy, Jo Song Gil, fled to South Korea in July 2019.

Jean H. Lee, the director of the Korea programme at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that Tae's success in South Korea as the first North Korean elected to Seoul's legislature, might have inspired other senior diplomats to defect.

Defected as he wanted to give "a better future" to his child

The diplomat, who had worked in Syria for four years before his station in Kuwait, told Maeil Business Newspaper that he had refrained from making contact with others after making the escape.

He also said he made the decision "as a parent" to defect as he wanted to give "a better future" to his child.

Ryu had taken over former Ambassador So Chang Sik after the latter was expelled from Kuwait following a 2017 United Nations resolution that sought to scale back North Korea's overseas diplomatic missions, Reuters reported.

The action was taken in response to North Korea's sixth nuclear test in September the same year.

Part of an elite family in North Korea

His wife is reportedly part of the elite society in North Korea, having completed her master's degree in economics at Kim Il Sung University and worked at a research institute in Pyongyang thereafter.

Ryu's father-in-law is also reportedly Jeon Il Chun, who was said to be “Kim Jong Il’s vault keeper" as he served as the head of Room 39, an organisation under the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

It was a position that put him in charge of managing the Labor Party’s funds, securing cash for Pyongyang's ruling elite, and also procuring luxury goods for the Kim family.

According to Tae, it is likely that Jeon has retired recently as his name was no longer on an updated list of the party's senior officials released this year.

Tempting to defect when diplomats go abroad

NK News reported that Tae confirmed that Ryu is the high-ranking Jeon's son-in-law as well.

Tae stressed to reporters on Monday the importance of the North Korean embassy in Kuwait as a "foothold embassy in the Middle East" responsible for managing the tens of thousands of North Korean labourers in Kuwait and other neighbouring countries.

But he also said: "No matter how privileged the class you belong to in North Korea is, if you go abroad and start to have a point of comparison, you are bound to turn away."

North Korea, which sent thousands of labourers to Kuwait to work on construction projects, gets most of its foreign currency from Kuwait.

Intelligence on North Korea gained from defections

Ryu's defection might be an indication that Kim Jong Un's control over the regime's bureaucracy might not be as strong as his grandfather's or father's, a former South Korean national security official, Cheon Seong-whun, told WSJ.

Still, he cautioned against taking the defections as a sign of the Kim regime weakening, adding that many North Koreans tend to pile on their support for their leader in the face of foreign pressure.

Experts cited by WSJ further said the string of high-profile defections have provided Washington and Seoul with valuable intelligence on North Korean matters, such as their sanctions evasions, as well as financial and military ventures in the Middle East.

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Top image via Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)