North Korean math whiz defector is named by Hong Kong newspaper

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North Korean math whiz defector is named by Hong Kong newspaper

The 18-year-old North Korean math whiz who sought refuge at the South Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong is named Ri Jong-yol, a local newspaper reported Monday.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) also published Ri’s photo, which it said had been distributed to around 100 student staff of the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad via the messenger application WhatsApp on July 16, a day after Ri attended the contest’s closing dinner with five teammates and two teachers.

At some point after the dinner at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Ri vanished and later sought refuge at the South Korean diplomatic mission, the Morning Post reported quoting a diplomatic source. The exact timing is not known.

It was the first such defection by a North Korean in the former British colony in 20 years.

Over 600 students from 109 countries took part in the competition at HKUST, more than about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the South Korean consulate. Prior to the Hong Kong contest, where he won a silver medal, Ri won silver medals at the 2014 contest in Cape Town, South Africa and last year’s in Chiang Mai, Thailand, experiences that gave him glimpses at the world outside North Korea.

The rest of the North Korean team flew back to Pyongyang via mainland China on July 19. No reports about them have appeared in the official media since their return.

Ri’s defection was first reported last Thursday and neither the South Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong nor the Unification Ministry in Seoul, which is in charge of handling inter-Korea affairs, confirmed or denied it, an indication of a delicate balance the South Korean government must achieve in negotiating with China to bring the boy to Seoul.

Beijing has recently shown some restraint in arresting North Korean defectors in mainland China trying to get to South Korea. But analysts warned it could take two to three years to complete negotiations with the Chinese authorities to fly the boy into South Korea and to wait for the right moment, such as when media interest in the case subsides.

North Korea has not reported the defection. After the defection of 13 North Korean restaurant staffers in China in April, Pyongyang lashed out at Seoul, claiming it had tricked the 13 into flying to Seoul. It demanded their immediate return to the North, which was rejected by the government.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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