The South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) on Monday declined to confirm the details of Choi In-guk’s defection to Pyongyang over the weekend, just a day after the news was reported by a North Korean state-run outlet.
Uriminzokkiri, an externally-focused outlet primarily targeting South Koreans, on Sunday reported that South Korean citizen Choi “arrived in Pyongyang on July 6 to permanently reside in the DPRK.”
Choi is the second son of Ryu Mi Yong, chairwoman of the Central Committee of the Chondoist Chongu Party and member of the 13th Presidium of Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), who died of lung cancer at the age of 95 in November 2016.
She was married to Choe Deok Sin, who served as South Korean foreign minister between 1961 and 1963.
Ryu and Choe defected to the North in 1986 after emigrating to the U.S. in 1976 due to a political feud with then-President Park Chung-hee.
Choe Deok Sin was also a prominent politician in the North, serving as the vice-chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, chairman of the Central Committee of the Chondoist Chongu Party, and member of the 8th Presidium of the SPA, among others.
Uriminzokkiri said Choi was greeted with a “feeling of compatriotism” by related officials including Ri Myong Chol — who serves as vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Chondoist Chongdu Party — at the Pyongyang International Airport.
In response to the defection, South Korean MOU spokesperson Lee Sang-min on Monday said a “relevant organization is currently figuring out the concrete factual grounds” of the details including Choi’s defection route, while refraining from expressing the ministry’s stance on the issue.
“Since the Constitution of the Republic of Korea guarantees freedom of movement, I’d like to say that the government does not identify or track the whereabouts of individual citizens.”
Lee was not able to provide a direct comment when asked why the South Korean government, including the intelligence services, had not been aware of Choi’s defection to the North until Uriminzokkiri reported his arrival at Pyongyang airport.
South Korean citizens intending to visit the North “must obtain approval for their visit from the Minister of Unification and carry a certificate issued by the Minister of Unification,” according to Article 9 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act.
Although the South Korean government has not commented on the motivation for his defection, Choi during a televised interview with the JTBC TV network in 2013 said that the defection of his parents had caused him great emotional difficulty and that he had been branded as the child of communists.
“They could not let me work for a company… because there was repeated pressure from the higher-ups,” he said in the interview.
Choi supported inter-Korean exchange and cooperation projects throughout his later life and had frequently travelled to the North.
He was reported to have visited the DPRK 12 times, attending his mother’s funeral and memorial ceremonies on the first and second anniversaries of her death between 2016 and 2018 under the permission of the South Korean government.
Ryu met her son during a visit to the South in 2000, as part of a delegation of North Koreans separated from family in the South.
Arriving at Pyongyang International Airport over the weekend, Choi said that he arrived in Pyongyang to permanently settle in the DPRK where the remains of his ancestors were, Uriminzokkiri reported on Sunday.
The remains of his father, mother, maternal and paternal grandfathers, and grand-aunt lie in the Patriotic Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, he said.
Ryu Mi Yong was the daughter of Ryu Tong Yol and Choe Deok Sin is the son of Choe Tong O. Both were reportedly famous independence fighters and prominent figures of the provisional government during the Japanese colonial period.
“I am not sure how to express my feelings now… I rest in the arms of the DPRK, the genuine fatherland where the spirit of my family’s patriotism resides and the legitimacy of the nation is alive,” Choi In-guk said in a statement carried by Uriminzokkiri.
“I’ve decided to permanently reside in the DPRK, despite it being late [in my life], as that this is the way to follow our grateful fatherland,” he continued. “This is also the way to respect the will of my deceased parents and the duty that I ought to fulfill as their child.”
Praising the former and current North Korean leaders, Choi said that the “love and consideration” of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un provided for his family “began from his grandfather’s generation and has been invariably handed down until today for three generations.”
“Although I am over seventy years old, I will dedicate the rest of my life to the achievement of the feat of national reunification … with resolution and determination as if my life was just at its very beginning,” he said.
To that end, Cho said he will “uphold the leadership of the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un in accordance with the earnest desire of his deceased parents.”
The externally-focused Uriminzokkiri released two articles and one video concerning his defection to the country on Sunday, though domestically-focused outlets have so far remained silent as of 1700 local time Monday.