Senior North Korean Diplomat in Kuwait Defects to South Korea
A man wearing a T-shirt with the words “Korea Army” looks across to the North Korean side of the border near the Demilitarized Zone. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Senior North Korean Diplomat in Kuwait Defects to South Korea

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North Korea’s former top diplomat in Kuwait has been living in South Korea for more than a year, according to a defector-turned-lawmaker in South Korea and news reports, adding to the small list of high-ranking officials who have escaped the country.

Ryu Hyun-woo, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait, defected and has been living in South Korea since September 2019, according to South Korean lawmaker Tae Yong-ho’s office. The Seoul-based website NK News reported separately that it had confirmed that the defection took place, citing South Korean government officials it didn’t name.

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

Ryu 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, Tae’s office said.

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

Tae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. 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.

“The North Korean embassy in Kuwait has been serving a role as the DPRK’s foothold embassy in the Middle East, managing tens of thousands of North Korean laborers not only in Kuwait, but also in the countries nearby,” Tae wrote on his Facebook page Monday, using the abbreviation for North Korea.

Prior to Tae, the highest-level 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. Hwang was labeled “human scum” by Pyongyang and lived under constant police protection.

North Korea has for years dispatched its workers to places like the Middle East, China and Russia to earn hard currency. The U.S. State Department said in a 2017 report that North Korea security officials in the Middle East were suspected of helping keep workers in slave-like conditions, withholding their passports and taking control of their wages.

Kuwait started expelling North Korean laborers from 2017 to comply with United Nations sanction 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, according to the Unification Ministry.

The U.S. 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 program in violation of U.S. sanctions.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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