North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, the latest high-profile escapes from the isolated nation.
Ryu Hyun Woo had led North Korea’s embassy in Kuwait since former Ambassador So Chang Sik was expelled after a 2017 U.N. resolution sought to scale back the country’s overseas diplomatic missions.
Ryu defected to South Korea last September, according to Tae Yong Ho, who was North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain before settling in the South in 2016 and being elected as a lawmaker last year.
Kuwait had been a key source of foreign currency for Pyongyang, which sent thousands of labourers there, mostly for construction projects.
Tae said Ryu is also the son-in-law of Jon Il Chun, who once oversaw a Worker’s Party bureau responsible for managing the ruling Kim family’s secret coffers, dubbed Room 39.
Room 39 is believed to be located inside the Worker’s Party building in Pyongyang and is tasked to seek ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders
The members are estimated to bring in between $500 million and $1 billion per year or more and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills, producing controlled substances and international insurance fraud.
Room 39 is critical to the Kim family’s continued power, enabling them to buy political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Ryu’s defection could be a sign that the North Korean elite who shore up leader Kim Jong Un’s power base has been drifting away from him slowly but constantly, Tae said.
Ryu fled several months after Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, vanished with his wife from the embassy and resurfaced in South Korea.