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Senior North Korean diplomat ‘defects to south’

Written by on 26/01/2021

A North Korean diplomat who served as the country’s acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to legislators who were briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.

Ryu Hyun-woo – who has changed name – arrived in South Korea in September 2019 with his wife and at least one child, a conservative opposition legislator said.

Ha Tae-Keung, who is also an executive secretary of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said he had been told by National Intelligence Service officials that Mr Ryu had escaped through a South Korean diplomatic mission – but didn’t specify where or why he decided to defect.

A North Korean diplomat who served as the country's acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea. Pic: File
Image: Ryu Hyun-woo previously served as North Korea’s ambassador to Kuwait. Pic: AP File

This would make Mr Ryu the most senior North Korean to defect in since Jo Song Gil, the ambassador to North Korea’s embassy in Italy, entered South Korea after disappearing in late 2018.

About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty for the south, mostly by crossing the border with China, but defections by senior officials are rare.

North Korea has expressed anger over high-profile defections in the past, but it has also been known to maintain silence when defectors keep a low profile, such as Jo Song Gil, to avoid highlighting the vulnerabilities of its government.

Pyongyang is known for using its diplomats to develop money-making sources abroad and experts have said it is possible that diplomats who defected may have struggled to meet financial demands from authorities at home.

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North Korea’s economy has been devastated by US-led sanctions over its nuclear programme, which was strengthened significantly in 2016 and 2017 amid a provocative series of nuclear and weapons tests.

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The defections by senior North Korean diplomats could reflect a growing sense of uncertainty among the country’s elite, said Shin Beomchul, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy and a former South Korean diplomat.

He added: “The North’s economic situation has worsened significantly from the sanctions of 2016 and 2017, and instead of pursuing reforms and openings to the outside world, the leadership is doubling down on increasing political control. This inspires questions about the future among the elite, and when they have the chance, they try to escape.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told the ruling party congress the country needed to maintain its nuclear development
Image: North Korea leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to strengthen his nuclear arsenal and reassert greater state control over the economy and society.

However, the analyst said it would be premature to take the defections as a sign that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s grip on his regime is weakening.

In recent speeches, Mr Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear arsenal and reassert greater state control over the economy and society.

The North Korean Embassy in Kuwait City is the country’s only diplomatic outpost in the Gulf region.

North Korea once had thousands of labourers working in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates before the United Nations stepped up sanctions against North Korean labour exports, which had been an important source of foreign income.

 Sky News

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