SEOUL – A North Korean diplomat who served as the country’s acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
Ha Tae-keung, a conservative opposition lawmaker and an executive secretary of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said Tuesday he was told by officials from the National Intelligence Service that the diplomat arrived in South Korea in September 2019 with his wife and at least one child.
That would make him one of the most senior North Koreans to defect in recent years. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite, and has sometimes insisted that they are South Korean or American plots to undermine its government.
Ha said he was told that the diplomat, who changed his name to Ryu Hyun-woo after arriving in the South, had escaped through a South Korean diplomatic mission but that spy officials didn’t specify where. Ha said spy officials didn’t provide specific details as to why Ryu decided to defect.
The office of Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of the ruling liberal party and the intelligence committee's other executive secretary, said he was also told that Ryu was now living in South Korea. Kim's aides didn’t elaborate further.
The NIS and South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, didn’t independently confirm Ryu's defection when reached by The Associated Press.
Kuwait’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A cellphone number once associated with the North Korean Embassy there rang unanswered Tuesday.
North Korean state media has yet to comment on Ryu’s situation.
While North Korea has expressed anger over some high-profile defections in the past, it has also been known to maintain silence when defectors keep a low profile — such as the 2018 defection of its former acting ambassador to Italy — in part to avoid highlighting the vulnerabilities of its government.
North Korea has long used its diplomats to develop money-making sources abroad and experts have said it’s possible that diplomats who defected may have struggled to meet financial demands from authorities at home.
North Korea’s long-mismanaged economy has been devastated by U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear program, which strengthened significantly in 2016 and 2017 amid a provocative series of nuclear and weapons tests.
The defections by senior North Korean diplomats could reflect a growing sense of uncertainty among the country's elite about the nation's future under a third-generation dynasty obsessed with nuclear weapons, said Shin Beomchul, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy and a former South Korean diplomat.
“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,” Shin said. “This inspires questions about the future among the elite, and when they have the chance, they try to escape.”
However, Shin said it would be premature to take the defections as a sign that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's grip over his regime is weakening.
In recent speeches, Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear arsenal and reassert greater state control over the economy and society. Experts say Kim's comments were aimed in part at pressuring the administration of new U.S. President Joe Biden after watching his country's economy decay amid pandemic-triggered border closures and his failure to obtain sanctions relief that never materialized from his diplomacy with previous U.S. President Donald Trump.
The North Korean Embassy in Kuwait City is the country's only diplomatic outpost in the Gulf region. North Korea once had thousands of laborers working in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates before the United Nations stepped up sanctions against North Korean labor exports, which had been an important source of foreign income for the North.
In a letter to the United Nations in March 2020, Kuwait said it had stopped issuing work permits for North Koreans and expelled those working in the country. The UAE said it expelled all North Korean laborers by late December 2019. Oman and Qatar haven’t provided updates since 2019 and 2018 respectively.
In September 2017, the Kuwaiti government expelled North Korea's ambassador and four other diplomats following North Korean nuclear and missile tests. Ryu reportedly stepped in as acting ambassador after that.
It appears Ryu fled months after North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, vanished with his wife in late 2018. Ha and other lawmakers told reporters last year that they learned Jo was living in South Korea under government protection after arriving in July 2019.
Jo was possibly the highest-level North Korean official to defect to the South since the 1997 arrival of a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored leader Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il.
Tae Young Ho, formerly a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected to South Korea in 2016 and was elected as a lawmaker representing Ha’s party last year, said in a Facebook post that Ryu’s defection would shock members of the North Korean ruling elite because he appears to be the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a ruling party bureau that handled the Kim family’s secret moneymaking operations. The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify Tae’s claim.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government records. Many defectors have said they were escaping from harsh political suppression and poverty, while elites like Tae have expressed resentment about the country’s dynastic leadership.
Tae has said he decided to flee because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and that he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un, who he said terrorized North Korean elites with executions and purges while consolidating power and aggressively pursued nuclear weapons.
North Korea has called Tae “human scum” and accused him of embezzling government money and committing other crimes, without presenting specific evidence.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.