North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) gesturing from the tribune during a military parade celebrating the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang, January 15, 2021. Photo: KCNA via KNS / AFP/South Korea Out

SEOUL – The acting ambassador at North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait, Ryu Hyun-woo, has defected to South Korea, the South’s media reported on Monday.

If the reports are accurate, that makes him one of the highest-ranked former North Koreans in South Korea. The Seoul press, while often incorrectly reporting purges in North Korea, has a better record of breaking stories of defections.

It also makes Ryu the third senior diplomat to defect in recent years, following Thae Yong-ho, the deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, who defected in 2016, and Jo Song-gil, acting ambassador to Rome, who is believed to have arrived in South Korea in 2019.

Officials at the Unification Ministry in Seoul were unavailable for comment, and media details are scarce. Yonhap reported that Ryu defected in 2019, just two months after Jo, to provide a better life for himself and his family.

Some media have speculated that Ryu is related to a senior official in Office 39, a mission-critical Pyongyang directorate with ties to the foreign service. The office gathers funds and luxury goods from overseas for the ruling Kim clan, enabling them to live a life of luxury and reward the loyalty of key elites.

Ryu’s whereabouts are unknown. When senior North Koreans defect, their defections are often not made public to protect their families back home from regime retaliation, or to protect them against possible espionage operatives in the South.

While 33,752 North Koreans had defected as of 2020, according to South Korean data, it is unknown how many were from the elite classes.

A number of high-level individuals work for a closed-door think tank affiliated with the National Intelligence Service, where their knowledge of North Korean practices and personnel are put to work for South Korea.

Thae Yong Ho, former North Korean diplomat, celebrates after winning the general election in Seoul on April 17, 2020. The Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP

However, some choose to leave that organization to take high-profile roles as critics of the North Korean state.

The late Hwang Jang-yeop, a former state ideologist who arrived in South Korea in 1997 and died in 2010, is widely considered the most senior North Korea to defect. He made the decision to speak out openly against the regime he formerly served.

Likewise, Thae is high profile. He wrote a best-selling book about his experiences as a North Korean diplomat and is currently a sitting National Assemblyman for the conservative opposition party in Seoul.

Kim’s diplomatic warriors

North Korean diplomats are part of the Pyongyang elite, but in a stove-piped, firewalled bureaucracy, are not power players in a polity dominated by regime insiders, party higher-ups and generals.

And the Foreign Ministry is not a key bureaucracy, given North Korea’s minimal global presence and limited foreign policy outlook – a policy plotted by those higher up the feeding chain. There are just 27 overseas diplomatic offices in Pyongyang, while Pyongyang maintains fewer than 60 embassies overseas.

Still, diplomacy is good work to do. Given that working overseas offers the chance to earn foreign currency – much sought-after in North Korea – some postings are granted as favors.

“Some of these people are given these opportunities by people in power – ‘You can go and spend some time in Europe’ – as treats for loyalty to the regime,” said David Tizzard, a Seoul-based British academic who studies North Korea’s diplomatic service. “Some are professionals, and some are assigned through nepotism.”

The former secretary of North Korea ‘s Workers Party Hwang Jang-Yeop defected to South Korea in 1997. Photo: AFP

It is unclear what Ryu’s core mission may have been in oil-rich, Western-allied Kuwait. North Korea imports its energy from China, and Pyongyang has customarily maintained closer ties in the Middle East with Iran and Syria, largely due to arms sales and nuclear technology exchanges, and with Yemen, due to arms sales.

However, in a well-moneyed region with large populations of migrant laborers – and North Korea exports labor – and proximity to conflict zones, Kuwait may have been an attractive environment for Pyongyang diplomats.

“The Middle East…is a place where you can do a lot of things that are illegal or not quite legal,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “It is a murky place with a great deal of money – just the kind of place North Koreans like.”

What does it mean?

Experts are reluctant to consider the string of senior defections the sign of something awry inside the North Korean diplomatic service. After all, a key reason cited for defections is pull rather than push: The lure of living in a nation that offers a higher quality of life, greater chances of prosperity and more individual freedoms.

“I don’t see it as an unnatural thing or a worry for North Korea or Kim Jong Un,” said Tizzard. “These people get used to a certain way of existing and they want that. It is not a sign that there is trouble in North Korean itself.”

Lankov did not necessarily see Ryu’s alleged defection as noteworthy but suggested it is emblematic of problems in advanced totalitarian states.

“I believe this is something you can see in other communist countries – a slow-motion death of belief,” he said. “As time goes by, people get more and more skeptical about the official line.”

Moreover, if Ryu was closely connected with a power player in Pyongyang who fell foul of Kim, he could have faced real peril.

Unlike his late father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has “hectic habits of purging, promoting and demoting” even those he knows well, Lankov noted. And while an official who falls from favor for personal or professional reasons may simply be deployed to a backwater office outside the showpiece capital Pyongyang, there are direr fates.

“Purges are humiliating, you never know if you will come back, and chances of promotion in your family are destroyed,” Lankov said. “And you never know if you are going to be sent to work at a local post office or in a mine; to a prison camp or to an execution ground.”

And the defections are a blow for what is a very small foreign service.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP/Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi

“An acting ambassador is a big fish,” Lankov said. “North Korea does not have many missions worldwide, so the number of ambassadors and deputy ambassadors currently in those positions is counted not in the hundreds but in the dozens.”

It is possible that Ryu was under pressure to perform. It is known that North Korean overseas service staff are expected to earn foreign currency rather than simply conduct diplomacy, though the details of this shadowy system are far from clear.

To earn foreign exchange, North Korea can trade assets that are both legitimate – such as labor and natural resources – and illegitimate – such as sanctioned arms, forged currency and narcotics.

Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea watcher who is the head of Seoul’s Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies, suggested that Ryu’s problem could simply have been the systemic and personal pressures faced by North Korean diplomatic families living overseas.

North Korean diplomats “usually live in the same compound and their office and housing is all in the same place, for security and intelligence reasons,” Choi said. “Their wives also work in the embassy – cooking cleaning – so in this kind of work and lifestyle, they don’t get along sometimes.”

Complicating factors are hierarchies – not just in the diplomatic service, but also of family members back home.

“Some have higher or lower-placed fathers in Pyongyang, and so there are many, many complex things that may not be political or ideological – it is what kind of food you eat, what kind of cigarettes you smoke – and that makes trouble, I hear,” Choi said.