VIENNA — Kim Jong Ryul spent 20 years doing business for North Korea’s dictators with European firms, before he defected to Austria in 1994. Now he fears for his life after emerging from hiding this week.
“I’ve come up to the light. But how long the sun will shine for me, I don’t know. I think it will be a short time,” he told AFP. “The North Koreans will try to capture me and kill me. I am very afraid.”
The small 75-year-old with the steel-rimmed glasses and the easy smile spent 20 years procuring legal and illegal goods for North Korea’s regime, saying he easily side-stepped the economic embargo against his country.
During repeated shopping trips to Europe, the fluent German-speaker acquired everything from spy technology, weapons and small planes to luxury cars and carpets, and a gold-plated gun for dictator Kim Il Sung.
One of his regular destinations was Vienna, where Pyongyang knew it could count on banking secrecy, relatively unrestricted trade and lax airport control.
Traveling on a North Korean diplomatic passport, often with a briefcase full of cash, Kim Jong Ryul spent months at a time in Europe, dealing with small firms that happily turned a blind eye on the goods’ destination in exchange for a 30-percent additional fee.
The North Korean embassy in Vienna often stored the banned surveillance equipment and high-tech devices before they were repackaged and flown out of the country with fake shipping documents and the help of paid-off customs officers, he said.
Not only Austrian but also Swiss, German and French firms did business with the North Koreans, and goods also came from Czechoslovakia.
All this is disclosed in a new book about Kim Jong Ryul’s life, “Im Dienst des Diktators” (“At the dictator’s service”) by Ingrid Steiner-Gashi and Dardan Gashi, whose publication this week brought the old man out of hiding.
A loyal party member who had never put a foot wrong, Colonel Kim defected to Austria on 18 October 1994 during one of his visits here, faking his death to throw the authorities off his scent.
Disgusted by a regime that lived in luxury while its people starved and sick of having his actions dictated to him by up-on-high, Kim left his family behind without a word about his plans. “I wanted freedom, I needed freedom,” he told AFP.
When his family saw him off at Pyongyang airport in October 1993, he already knew he wanted to defect. But he always planned to go back once the regime had fallen and Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 gave him hope. “I hoped if the great dictator was dead, there would be a change, a revolution.”
“I’ve waited so long and after 15 years I’m still sitting here. A small consolation is this book: that’s something I can leave behind.” For 15 years, Kim Jong Ryul has lived illegally in Austria, trying not to stand out, making few friends and living on savings which he managed to conceal before his escape.
In all this time, he has had no news of his family, whom he never informed of his decision, for his safety and theirs. “I have no clue if my family is still alive or not… Letters would be so dangerous because they all think I’m dead.”
Today, Kim, who owns five TV sets and has taught himself Japanese to better follow news about his country, has little hope of going back.
“To see my family, my son, my daughter once more before I die, that’s my dream… but it is far from likely. “For Asians it is very important to remain loyal to your masters. I violated that, today I’m a traitor. I betrayed the fatherland, I betrayed the revolution.”
Talking to the book’s authors was a calculated risk: “I will die eventually anyway. Why die without having some meaning?” “I’m very afraid, I don’t know where the bullets that will kill me might come from.” But he has no regrets, saying that defecting “was 100-percent the right decision.”
He is nevertheless taking precautions. “Starting tomorrow, you won’t see me anymore. Tomorrow or after tomorrow, I will disappear.”