Friends say S. Korean defected to North after years of stigmatisation

Mr Choe In-guk met his mother Ryu Mi Yong in 2000 when she went to Seoul for a reunion event of separated families.
Mr Choe In-guk met his mother Ryu Mi Yong in 2000 when she went to Seoul for a reunion event of separated families.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • A South Korean man who made a rare defection to North Korea was partly driven by the stigma and financial hardship that followed his parents' own high-profile flight to Pyongyang more than three decades ago, friends said yesterday.

Mr Choe In-guk, 72, arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday and announced that he would live there, in a video published by North Korean media, following in the footsteps of his parents who made a switch of allegiance in 1986.

Such a move is highly unusual and is more frequently seen in the other direction.

South Korea says more than 30,000 people have fled there since the 1950-1953 Korean War to escape decades of repression and poverty in the North.

Throughout his life, Mr Choe had failed to secure a stable job after his parents' defection and could not shake the "infamous" association at a time of intense rivalry between Pyongyang and Seoul, his friend Na Han-yub told Agence France-Presse in the South Korean capital.

"He was always sorry he couldn't help his children financially," Mr Na said, adding that Mr Choe had an estranged relationship with them and his wife.

Another acquaintance of Mr Choe, named Song Beom-du, told the South's Dong-A Ilbo daily that the defector had said there was "nothing" he could do in South Korea and his life was lived "in pain".

Mr Choe's late father, Mr Choe Dok Shin, was a retired general who fought in the Korean War and served as foreign minister during the presidency of Park Chung-hee, the leader who led South Korea with an iron grip from 1961 to 1979.

In 1976, the senior Choe emigrated to the United States with his wife Ryu Mi Yong after his relationship with the Park government turned sour.


The couple then resettled in North Korea - making them the highest-profile South Korean defectors to the reclusive state to date - and lived among Pyong-yang's elite.

Madam Ryu reunited with her son in 2000 when she led the North Korean delegation to Seoul for a meeting of separated families there. She died in 2016.

Mr Choe In-guk had made 12 authorised trips across the border since 2001, the South Korean government said, with the latest in November last year on the third anniversary of his mother's death.

South Korean citizens are not allowed to visit North Korea or contact North Koreans without the government's permission.

Seoul's unification ministry said on Monday it was unaware of Mr Choe's move until the video report was published and was investigating how he had made the journey.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2019, with the headline 'Friends say S. Korean defected to North after years of stigmatisation'. Subscribe