North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Kuwait believes 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. In his first interview since defecting to the South more than a year ago, Ryu Hyeon-woo told CNN that “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 upfront in negotiations with the totalitarian state. “The US can’t back down from denuclearization and Kim Jong Un cannot denuclearize,” he added.
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. The country’s top diplomat in Italy fled to South Korea in 2019, and Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, defected in 2016. Thae has since been elected to South Korea’s National Assembly.
Ryu and his family defected to 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 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.
They finally told their daughter about the plan while pretending to drive her to school.
“Come with Mom and Dad to find freedom,” Ryu recalled telling his daughter. “She was shocked, then said, ‘Okay.’ That’s all she said.” Ryu took his family to the South Korean embassy in Kuwait to claim asylum. They traveled to South Korea several days later.