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North Korea diplomat in Kuwait ‘defects’ to South Korea: reports

Defections by senior North Korean officials are rare [AFP]

Date of publication: 25 January, 2021

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Ryu Hyun Woo had been North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait since 2017.

North Korea's top diplomat in Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to media reports on Monday.

Ryu Hyun Woo secretly arrived in South Korea last September, where he sought asylum, the Maeil Business daily report. Seoul's Yonhap news agency also confirmed the defection.

Ryu had held the post of North Korea's acting ambassador to Kuwait since 2017, after his predecessor So Chang Sik was ordered to leave. At the time, the Gulf country adopted a UN resolution and downgraded its relations with Pyongyang.

Amid rising tensions between the US and North Korea over the latter's missile tests, Washington-ally Kuwait restricted visas to the thousands of North Korean workers in the country and suspended all trade flights with Pyongyang.

Kuwait had been a key source of foreign currency for the isolated state, whose laborers worked on construction projects in the oil-rich state.

Read more: Kuwait to expel Pyongyang ambassador following US-North Korea tensions

The news of Ryu's defection is the latest in a string of high-profile escapes by North Korean diplomats. Two months before Ryu reportedly arrived there, Jo Song Gil, the acting ambassador to North Korea's embassy in Italy, entered South Korea after disappearing in late 2018.

Tae Yong Ho, a South Korean opposition MP who fled his post as North Korea's deputy ambassador to the UK in 2016, has described Ryu as part of Pyongyang's "core elite".

Tae said Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once headed Room 39, a government bureau responsible for managing the secret funds of Kim Jong Il's family.

Although nearly a 1,000 people defect from the country every year, those by senior North Korean officials are rare. 

"No matter how privileged your life is in North Korea, your mind changes when you go abroad and draw comparisons." Tae told AFP.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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