Lawmakers say North Korean diplomat defected to South Korea

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FILE - In this June 15, 2020, file photo, South Korean army soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea. A North Korean diplomat who served as the country's acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by Seoul's spy agency on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

SEOUL – A North Korean diplomat who served as the country’s acting ambassador to Kuwait has defected to South Korea, according to South Korean lawmakers who were briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.

Ha Tae-keung, a conservative opposition lawmaker and an executive secretary of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said Tuesday he was told by officials from the National Intelligence Service that the diplomat arrived in South Korea in September 2019 with his wife and at least one child.

That would make him one of the most senior North Koreans to defect in recent years. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite, and has sometimes insisted that they are South Korean or American plots to undermine its government.

Ha said he was told that the diplomat, who changed his name to Ryu Hyun-woo after arriving in the South, had escaped through a South Korean diplomatic mission but that spy officials didn’t specify where. Ha said spy officials didn’t provide specific details as to why Ryu decided to defect.

The office of Kim Byung-kee, a lawmaker of the ruling liberal party and the intelligence committee's other executive secretary, said he was also told that Ryu was now living in South Korea. Kim's aides didn’t elaborate further.

The NIS and South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, didn’t independently confirm Ryu's defection when reached by The Associated Press.

Kuwait’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A cellphone number once associated with the North Korean Embassy there rang unanswered Tuesday.

North Korean state media has yet to comment on Ryu’s situation.