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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

Former North Korean ambassador to Kuwait defected in 2019 and now lives in South Korea

Ryu Hyun-woo was connected to the North Korean elite, a former associate said

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the first day of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea. KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the first day of the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea. KCNA via Reuters

North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait has been living in South Korea for more than a year, said a defector-turned-politician in South Korea and news reports.

Ryu Hyun-woo defected and has been in the country since September 2019, according to South Korean lawmaker Tae Yong-ho’s office. The Seoul-based website NK News reported separately it had confirmed the defection took place, citing South Korean government officials it didn’t identify.

The South Korean Unification Ministry declined on Tuesday to comment on the reports.

Mr Ryu joins the small list of high-ranking officials who have escaped the country.

He is a son-in-law of Jon Il-chun, the former head of North Korea’s “Office 39,” which has been long suspected of managing illicit financial activities to enrich North Korea’s ruling family and Pyongyang’s elites, Mr Tae’s office said.

South Korean media, including Maeil Business Newspaper, reported that the acting ambassador defected with his wife and a child, only weeks after Jo Song-gil, acting ambassador to Italy, defected to South Korea in July 2019. The paper said Mr Ryu left because he wanted his child to have a better life.

Mr Tae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK before his own defection in 2016, won a seat in South Korea’s parliament in April. He said the defections put strains on Kim Jong-un’s regime, which had relied on diplomats to help fill the coffers of the sanctions-hit state.

Prior to Tae, the most senior official to defect was Hwang Jang-yop – an architect of North Korea’s guiding principal of self-reliance known as “Juche” – who made his way to South Korea in 1997. Mr Hwang was labelled “human scum” by Pyongyang and lived under constant police protection.

North Korea has for years sent its workers to the Middle East, China and Russia to earn hard currency.

The US State Department said in a 2017 report that North Korean security officials were suspected of helping keep workers in foreign countries in slave-like conditions, withholding their passports and taking control of their wages.

Kuwait started expelling North Korean labourers from 2017 to comply with UN sanctions imposed on Pyongyang to punish it for tests of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. About 1,000 North Koreans defect to South Korea every year, the Unification Ministry said.

The US and others have accused North Korea of using its overseas missions to illicitly raise funds. In May, the Justice Department accused more than two dozen North Korean and Chinese individuals with operating an illegal global financial network to aid Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programme, in breach of US sanctions.

Updated: January 26, 2021 04:33 PM

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