Kim Jong Un cannot denuclearize, former North Korean diplomat says

Ryu Hyeon-woo had been part of the North Korean elite until his defection in 2019. Speaking exclusively with CNN's Paula Hancocks, Ryu opens up about the decision to flee the totalitarian state and the North Korea nuclear issue.

Posted: Feb 1, 2021 6:21 PM
Updated: Feb 1, 2021 6:21 PM

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 up front 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.

Defection from North Korea comes at a monumental cost, with defectors having to instantly sever ties from all family left in their home nation.

The regime often punishes nuclear and extended families of defectors to deter people from leaving, Ryu said -- especially diplomats. Those posted abroad are often forced to leave a child at home as a hostage, ensuring their parents do not defect.

"I think that North Korea having such feudal collective familial punishment in the 21st century is appalling," Ryu said.

He is now worried about his three siblings and 83-year-old mother still in North Korea. "I just want to see them live long," Ryu said. "Any thought of them being punished for what I've done just hurts my heart."

He also worries for his wife's elderly parents living in Pyongyang.

Ryu and his wife both came from North Korea's ruling elite. His father-in-law ran Office 39, a branch of the North Korean government a former employee likened to a "slush fund" for the Kim family. Nominally, it is in charge of getting hard currency for the cash-strapped regime.

North Korea has long been accused of using its embassies as cash cows for the ruling Kim family. Ryu said that while he was a trained diplomat dealing with politics, there were also "economic trading workers" assigned to diplomatic posts. They were given a quota on the amount of money they must make for the state, Ryu added.

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, paying for Kim regime priorities such as the nuclear program.

Ryu said only China and Russia were bigger cash earners for the regime from North Korean laborers than the Gulf nations of Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE -- at least until 2017, when the United Nations punished Pyongyang for its repeated missile and nuclear tests by barring nations from employing its workers.

"Due to the UN resolution, most laborers in the Gulf region left," he said.

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. However, Ryu said the country's bloody civil war forced Pyongyang to pull its personnel from the country. He said he had not heard of any new weapons deals with the Syrians since leaving the country.

Ryu's experience in the Middle East gave him an up-close look at how the United States dealt with Iran's nuclear program during former President Barack Obama's administration. He believes that experience will come in handy for US President Joe Biden.

"Based on his experience resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, I have no doubt he'll be able to handle North Korea's nuclear issue wisely," Ryu said.

Ryu said he believed North Korea may be willing to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear weapons, but is unlikely to ever give them up entirely. However, he said sanctions may have played a factor in pushing North Korea to the negotiating table in 2018, when Kim and former US President Donald Trump met for their historic summit in Singapore.

Many analysts believe Kim came to the negotiating table because he had already developed nuclear weapons and successfully tested a long-range missile that could reach United States territory.

"The current sanctions on North Korea are unprecedented and strong," Ryu said. "I think sanctions against North Korea should continue."

Ryu also said it is important not to abandon the issue of human rights, which was largely swept under the carpet during nuclear talks with the Trump administration.

Pyongyang claims to be a socialist paradise and denies allegations of gross human rights violations. North Korea, however, does not allow freedom of speech or assembly, and citizens cannot leave. Kim's regime is accused of running a system of gulags and political prison camps that house more than 120,000 men, women and children.

"Human rights is a matter of morality, and in the North Korean regime, the human rights issue is a sensitive and serious one," Ryu said.

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.

Ryu told CNN he asked his daughter what she likes most about her new home. "I like the fact that I can use the internet as much as I want," she replied.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 515504

Reported Deaths: 10296
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34999558
DeSoto33360432
Hinds32743643
Jackson24906392
Rankin22565405
Lee16455245
Madison14954283
Jones14158248
Forrest13834260
Lauderdale12311323
Lowndes11357193
Lamar10693140
Pearl River9748244
Lafayette8868143
Hancock7849132
Washington7559169
Oktibbeha7229138
Monroe7068179
Pontotoc7033110
Warren6885178
Panola6791135
Neshoba6744210
Marshall6707142
Bolivar6468151
Union643598
Pike5942157
Alcorn5921107
Lincoln5540136
George510680
Prentiss508285
Tippah495683
Itawamba4884107
Scott478999
Tate4777117
Adams4776125
Leflore4749144
Copiah458195
Yazoo458092
Simpson4566117
Wayne443472
Covington434895
Sunflower4319106
Marion4295112
Coahoma4244110
Leake414191
Newton396182
Tishomingo386894
Grenada3789109
Stone366166
Jasper341266
Attala340490
Chickasaw318367
Winston318392
Clay312978
Clarke301695
Calhoun286850
Holmes272889
Smith270552
Yalobusha244947
Tallahatchie232353
Greene225149
Walthall222166
Lawrence220242
Perry214556
Amite210357
Webster206548
Noxubee188843
Montgomery182157
Carroll175441
Jefferson Davis174343
Tunica163539
Benton153139
Kemper145441
Choctaw137027
Claiborne134839
Humphreys132239
Franklin126530
Quitman107828
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson97134
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 847659

Reported Deaths: 16172
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1163752005
Mobile743371381
Madison53434738
Shelby38413371
Baldwin38171589
Tuscaloosa36131643
Montgomery34571782
Lee25664264
Calhoun22622519
Morgan22527408
Etowah20059520
Marshall18821318
Houston17769426
St. Clair16946359
Limestone16192220
Cullman16140305
Elmore15948295
Lauderdale15055307
Talladega14244302
DeKalb13061271
Walker12138380
Blount10765193
Autauga10545157
Jackson10204195
Coffee9435192
Colbert9363210
Dale9038192
Tallapoosa7283202
Russell710165
Chilton7078170
Covington6967197
Escambia6962144
Franklin6364108
Chambers5795142
Marion5435130
Dallas5302210
Pike5128109
Clarke485686
Lawrence4845130
Winston4785110
Geneva4650136
Bibb435495
Barbour370180
Butler3444101
Marengo342793
Monroe338366
Randolph337767
Pickens334790
Fayette331485
Henry321066
Cherokee319964
Hale318889
Crenshaw261678
Washington256852
Cleburne255460
Lamar253555
Clay252069
Macon245767
Conecuh193562
Coosa185847
Wilcox178338
Lowndes178268
Bullock152745
Perry141840
Sumter139741
Greene130345
Choctaw94328
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
67° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 67°
Columbus
Cloudy
66° wxIcon
Hi: 68° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 66°
Oxford
Cloudy
° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: °
Starkville
Cloudy
68° wxIcon
Hi: 70° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 68°
Rain coming in this weekend as a cold front moves through the area bringing cooler temperatures on into the start of next week.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather