A senior North Korean diplomat who was acting as ambassador to Kuwait defected in 2019 and joined South Korea with his family, South Korean media reported on Monday.
Ryu Hyun-woo arrived in South Korea in September 2019, where he sought political asylum, according to the daily. Maeil Business, but his arrival had been kept secret.
It is estimated that around 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty in their country to the South, most of them first crossing the border with China.
High officials’ defections are rare. Ryu’s arrival, however, came months after former acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil also sought asylum in the South.
“I decided to defect because I wanted to give my child a better future,” Ryu said, according to the Maeil Business.
He assumed the interim head of the embassy in September 2017 after Kuwait expelled diplomat So Chang Sik, following the UN adoption of sanctions against Pyongyang in connection with its nuclear programs and ballistic.
Media reports present Mr. Ryu as the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, the former boss of Office 39, which manages the secret funds of North Korean leaders.
It would be, if confirmed, a very important defection which would be reminiscent of that in 2016 of the former number two of the North Korean embassy in Great Britain, Tae Yong-Ho, l one of the top North Korean diplomats to have defected in recent years.
Elected last year as an MP, Mr. Tae introduced Mr. Ryu as belonging to the “heart of the elite” of the regime.
“Whatever privileges you may enjoy in North Korea, your mind can only change when you go abroad and compare,” he said.
The North has tightened restrictions and border controls as part of the fight against the coronavirus, and the number of North Koreans crossing to the South has dropped significantly over the past year.
But for Mr. Tae, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “will not always be able to prevent the North Koreans who dream of freedom from going to South Korea”.
While remarkable detente appeared on the peninsula in 2018 in the wake of the Winter Olympics, inter-Korean relations have cooled considerably since the failure of the second summit between Mr. Kim and former US President Donald Trump in February 2019 in Hanoi.