The defection of a high-level North Korean diplomat represents an embarrassment for Kim Jong Un and exposed the mounting pressure on Pyongyang’s foreign diplomats to generate revenue for the regime, experts said.
The latest escape, of Ryu Hyun Woo, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait, was revealed by a South Korean newspaper this week. Fears for his family’s future ultimately drove Mr Ryu to defect, risking his life and those of his wife and child, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr Ryu’s experience also demonstrated that Pyongyang’s network of nearly 50 foreign embassies is struggling to perform a core task: making money.
US-led sanctions have blocked Kuwait’s financial interactions with Pyongyang and severed the flow of thousands of North Korean workers to the oil-rich Arab state, a close contact of Mr Ryu in Seoul told the Financial Times.
“He had trouble bringing in hard currency for the North Korean regime and in sending money back to Pyongyang — there were no workers to control,” said the person, who requested anonymity.
Washington tightened sanctions in 2017 after a series of nuclear weapons tests, cracking down on North Korea’s finance networks and workers abroad. The US estimates that the latter netted $500m annually. Kuwait was particularly important for the Kim regime, serving as a hub for workers into the Gulf.
“Sanctions have made it more difficult for North Korea’s diplomats and overseas trade networks to bring in cash for their government, particularly if they are operating in countries that take compliance seriously,” said Daniel Wertz, an expert at the US-based National Committee on North Korea.
The UN panel monitoring North Korea’s sanctions-busting activities last year detailed North Korean embassy involvement in weapons deals in Europe and Africa, arms trading in Syria and gold and cash smuggling between Iran and Dubai. Properties in Germany, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria were also under investigation for illegal commercial use.
Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the threat of further defections was considered a necessary risk in Pyongyang’s foreign policy.
“If you restrict [diplomatic] activities too tightly, then essentially it is going to come back to the regime and damage its finances, I don’t think they can afford to do that,” Mr Go said.
Mr Wertz added: “Even as it becomes harder for these officials to do their job, it is likely that a cash-strapped government in Pyongyang will press them to bring in more.”
Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now at the Rand Corporation, a think-tank, said high-level defections were still an embarrassment for Mr Kim, who has emphasised self-sufficiency in the face of an intensifying economic crisis and further isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What does it say about the conditions of the country and a leader’s ability to do his job when the elites — who, for the most part, are supposedly living under better terms than the average North Korean citizen — decide to leave in search of freedom?” Ms Kim said.
Mr Ryu’s escape follows the defections of other diplomats including Jo Song Gil from Italy in 2018 and Tae Yong Ho from the UK in 2016.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said the series of notable defections was not a clear signal of rising dissent among Kim’s top officials. While rare, experts believe there are dozens of other high-ranking North Korean officials living in South Korea and the US. Most escapes have not been publicised as the defectors seek anonymity.
Still, Mr Ryu’s defection, and subsequent interviews with intelligence agencies, might have already helped shed light on Pyongyang’s relations with Kuwait a well as with Syria, where he was previously stationed, and on elite politics through his family connections in Pyongyang.
Now that Mr Ryu and his family are safely out of Kim Jong Un’s reach, he hopes his daughter can finally pursue her dream of becoming a musician, one person who has spoken to him said.