In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that Kim Jong Un will not give up his nuclear arsenal but may be willing to negotiate an arms reduction for relief from the international sanctions crippling Pyongyang’s economy.
“North Korea’s nuclear power is directly linked to the stability of the regime” — and Kim likely believes nuclear weapons are key to his survival. Ryu also said previous US administrations had boxed themselves into a corner by demanding denuclearization up front in negotiations with the totalitarian state.
The former diplomat, who adopted the name Ryu upon moving to the South, is one of several high-profile North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Ryu and his family defectedto South Korea in September 2019, but their actions were only made public last week.
Determined to give their teenage daughter a better life, Ryu said he and his wife planned their escape for about a month while living in Kuwait. Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.
Ryu said that if they had been caught, North Korean agents would have quickly taken them all back to Pyongyang for certain punishment, as defection is considered a major embarrassment to the Kim regime and is not taken lightly.
Kuwait was a particularly important revenue stream for Pyongyang, as the Persian Gulf nation used to employ about 10,000 North Korean laborers. Those workers were allegedly treated like modern-day slaves, and experts say almost all of their earnings were funneled back to the government.
Ryu also was posted to Syria, a close ally of North Korea, from 2010 to 2013. While Ryu was charged with overseeing relations with Syrian politicians, his countrymen were selling conventional weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime, including long-range multiple launcher artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems.
Looking back over the past 16 months, Ryu says his only regret is what might happen to his remaining family members back in Pyongyang. He and his wife believe they did the right thing for their daughter, by taking her away from her home country.
Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation. Ryu is worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea, and the family also worries for his wife’s elderly parents living in Pyongyang.