SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The son of the highest-profile South Korean ever to defect to North Korea has arrived in the North to permanently resettle, the country’s state media said. If confirmed, it would be an unusual case of a South Korean defecting to the impoverished, authoritarian North.
The state-run Uriminzokkiri website reported that Choe In-guk arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday to dedicate his life to Korean unification at the guidance of leader Kim Jong Un. The website published photos and footage showing Choe reading his arrival statement at Pyongyang’s international airport.
Choe is the son of former South Korean Foreign Minister Choe Dok-shin, who defected to the North in 1986 with his wife after political disputes with then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee. He died in 1989.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Choe was in North Korea without special permission from the Seoul government to visit the North. Ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters Monday that authorities were trying to find out details about Choe’s travel to North Korea.
The two Koreas, split along the world’s most heavily fortified border for about 70 years, bar their citizens from visiting each other’s territory and exchanging phone calls, letters or emails without special permissions. Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, more than 30,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea to avoid political repression and economic poverty, but it’s highly unusual for South Koreans to go to North Korea to resettle.
Before his death, the senior Choe held high-level posts in North Korea such as vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, an agency dealing with relations with South Korea, and head of the Chondoist Chongu Party, a political group affiliated with a Korean native religion called “Chondo.”
His wife, Ryu Mi Yong, had also taken up a slew of high-profile jobs, including being a member of the presidium of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament and chairwoman of the Central Committee of the Chondoist Chongu Party. When she died at the age of 95 in 2016, a public funeral was organized and her body was buried along with her husband’s at Pyongyang’s Patriotic Martyrs Cemetery.
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, Choe In-guk was allowed to make 12 authorized trips to North Korea since 2001 for events like visiting his parents’ cemetery and attending a death anniversary for his mother.
It wasn’t immediately known how he went to North Korea, but South Korean media speculated he flew from Beijing with a North Korean government-issued visa. Before his latest trip to North Korea, Choe was a member of a “Chondo” church in South Korea and was engaged in inter-Korean engagement movements, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an unidentified church official.