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INTERVIEW: Former North Korean diplomat on the drawbacks of being elite

Ryu Hyun-woo was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait when he defected to South Korea in 2019. As one of the elites in North Korea, he had rights and privileges that ordinary citizens do not. But at the same time, he and others like him were under even more scrutiny than the average citizen, he says.

Ryu lived in an apartment complex in Pyongyang where all of his neighbors were high-ranking North Korean officials. In an interview with RFA Korean, Ryu explained that life as an elite is like already having “one foot in hell” because of the constant surveillance their lives are under, and how easily they are discarded if the leader needs someone to take the blame.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Ryu: I was born in Pyongyang. I graduated from the Pyongyang Foreign Language Institute and Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, majoring in Arabic. I then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and worked there for over 20 years. After working as a diplomat in Syria and Kuwait, I came to South Korea in September 2019. I have settled in and I am living well in South Korea.

RFA: When you were in North Korea, you lived in and exclusive area of Pyongyang, correct? Do all the elites live in the same area?

Ryu: The administrative district name is Uiam-dong, Taedonggang district, Pyongyang. This place is also called Eundok village, and it is the residence of many officials. There are six major buildings in the residence. The generals of the North Korean People’s Army live in four of the buildings. One building is for high-ranking officials in the Central Committee. The remaining one is where high-ranking officials of the administrative department live.

RFA: We often hear about North Korea’s chronic shortages of electricity. Did the elevators on these buildings cut out from time to time like they do for everyone else living in apartments?

Ryu: You’re right. North Korea has a poor power supply system. Because of it, the elevator sometimes stops working. However, there are times when it operates normally. For example, during commuting hours, it is guaranteed. Nevertheless, the electricity often drops even during commuting hours. 

My house was on the 4th floor. Oh Guk Ryol, the head of the operations department, lived on the 5th floor, and Director Kim Yang Gon lived on the 3rd floor. The former head of the United Front Work Department and Oh Guk Ryol came down from the floors above, and my father-in-law (Jon Il Chun, the former head Office 39, the secretive organization that manages the slush funds of the Kim family) and I would get on to the elevator. As we were going down, Kim Yang Gon got on. 

Then just as the elevator was going down to the second floor, it suddenly stopped. I was the youngest of everyone there, so I had no choice but to open the escape hatch on the ceiling of the elevator. It’s like a vent. I climbed up to the third floor and I saw something that looked like a latch that opens the elevator door. I opened the door with it, contacted the management, and rescued the other officials in the elevator. The electricity situation was so bad.

RFA: Can living in that area of Pyongyang be seen as a matter of pride for its residents?

Ryu: It can be interpreted as having a lot of trust and high loyalty. However, there are pros and cons. Once you enter this place, you are subject to wiretapping, stalking and strong surveillance. You can’t say anything inside your house. 

For example, wasn’t Chief of Staff Ri Yong Ho shot to death? It was because he was at home making slanderous remarks about Kim Jong Un with his wife. He was purged and disappeared. My mother-in-law kept pointing to her mouth whenever I tried to complain about something. She told me to be quiet and not to say anything because they listen to everything. 

To that extent, they wiretap 24 hours a day. That’s why there is a different way to share thoughts. My in-laws would wake up around 5:30 in the morning. I would wake up around 6 o’clock. Then we go for a jog or walk together. That’s the time my father-in-law would ask me questions and I would also talk to him. 

For example, while I was in Syria, I heard a South Korean refer to my father-in-law as ‘Kim Jong Il’s safekeeper,’ so I passed that on to my father-in-law.

RFA: You told your father-in-law about something that came out in the South Korean media?

Ryu: I told my father-in-law that in South Korea, he is referred to as ‘Kim Jong Il’s safekeeper.’ My father-in-law laughed. I told him those things, secret things that should not be caught by wiretapping. We exchanged stories like that while taking a walk or in a place where wiretapping does not work.

Ryu Hyun-woo (right), who served as North Korea’s acting ambassador to Kuwait in 2019, escaped from North Korea and has now settled in South Korea, in a frame grab from an interview with RFA Korea. (RFA)

RFA: Was there ever any frightful incident you witnessed while living there?

Ryu: The household we were closest to was Park Nam Ki, director of the Planning and Finance Department of the ruling party of North Korea. Do you remember the currency reform in 2009? 

(That was when North Korea introduced new versions of its paper currency, but allowed the people to exchange only a certain amount of their old currency, thereby wiping out most people’s savings.)

As a result of that incident, Park Nam Ki was shot to death in January 2010. In February of the same year, Park Nam Ki’s entire family members went to a political prison camp. I remembered it was around 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. There was a truck from the Ministry of State Security. The big military trucks came and loaded all the luggage and the family. 

I felt like the whole town was going to wake up from the sound of women and children crying. My heart was trembling. We stayed up all night. It occurred to me that we too could face a similar fate. Would Park Nam Ki have been able to carry out currency reform at will? How could he possibly do so without Kim Jong Il’s instructions? Even though Kim Jong Il did it, he turned the condemnation and curses of the people towards Park Nam Ki.

RFA: Are retired high-ranking officials managed separately?

Ryu: If you are a person who holds a lot of secrets, for example, if you work in Office 39, you know everything about the flow of funds, Kim Jong Un’s relationship with his funds, how large the fund is, and what happened to the fund. For example, (former minister of state security) Kim Won Hong knows 100% how the director of Ministry of State Security purged the opposition, how he wiretaps, and everything else. So, we cannot guarantee that these people won’t expose what they know if they are released into society.

RFA: People like that have to keep their secrets. Do North Korean authorities treat them well so that they remain silent?

Ryu: Not at all. They only provide a house, and the house is guarded by armed guards. You can’t come and go as you please. In February 2019, my father-in-law underwent surgery for a myocardial infarction. My wife heard the news when we were in Kuwait. My father-in-law retired after that. 

My wife said she needed to go home to tend to him, so I told her to go. My wife went home for a month from July to August 2019. When she went and looked at the house my father-in-law received, there was no closet. She went to the distribution center with my mother-in-law and she received 2 kilograms of potatoes as a six-month food ration. So, together they received a total of 4 kilos for the entire six months.

If I were to live my life again, I would want to live as an ordinary person. High-ranking officials already have one foot in hell. You don’t know when you will die. Living in peace is better. 

We were constantly bugged, monitored, and followed. What kind of freedom is that? What kind of life is that? My father-in-law left work at 11:00 p.m. I once asked why officials regularly left work that late. He said he was waiting because the marshal (the sitting leader) might call. You have to be consistent in waiting all the time. He said, “When the great leader is calling you, how can you just answer that call at home?”

RFA: But aren’t there benefits and privileges to being in the elite? 

Ryu: People think that North Korea’s high-ranking elites and Kim Jong Un share a common of destiny, but that’s not true. The first people to be executed are the North Korean elite when they make a tiny mistake against Kim Jong Un. 

Hyon Yong Chol, minister of defense, was executed by firing squad for dozing off a little at a convention. Does that make sense? He was about 70 years old. After walking around and inspecting the military base, wouldn’t it be normal to doze off a bit? It doesn’t make sense to shoot someone in his 70s just because he fell asleep. I think it is a misconception to think the elites have a similar destiny as the leader.

Of course, we must strike down the main culprits (of the North Korean government’s crimes), who take the lead in executing and oppressing North Korean residents along with Kim Jong Un. But we cannot strike down all the elites all together. 

These people did not do it because they wanted to. There are some among these people who are instigators and others who reluctantly follow instructions from above. People like this are pulling more people to their side.

I think it is very important to advance unification and achieve a peaceful settlement on the Korean Peninsula after unification. In that respect, I would like to emphasize once again that the lives of officials are not very luxurious. 

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.