North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has gone into hiding, South Korea’s intelligence officials told lawmakers on Thursday.
Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, disappeared from the official residence in what would be the latest in a growing list of defections by Pyongyang’s envoys.
The high-profile break would be a humiliating blow to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who seeks to establish himself as a legitimate leader with global standing following a year of unprecedented diplomatic outreach.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki briefed reporters about Jo’s possible defection based on information shared by Seoul’s spy agency in a closed-door hearing.
According to the lawmaker Kim, Jo and his wife went missing without notice before the end of his term scheduled for late November.
Kim said that in the two months since his disappearance, Jo has not contacted South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency, suggesting that he could be seeking asylum in a different country.
A press officer said the Italian Foreign Ministry has no record of the defection but added that “we don’t have the grounds even for denying it.” The ministry said it was notified by the North Koreans six weeks ago that Jo was leaving his post.
Officials at the North Korean Embassy in Rome could not immediately be reached for comment.
The South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Thursday that Jo applied to an unspecified Western country for asylum. The paper quoted the source as saying that the Italian government is “protecting him in a safe place” but “agonizing” over the next step. Jo, 48, is believed to be a son or son-in-law of a high-level official in North Korea, JoongAng Ilbo reported, citing an unnamed expert.
Thae Yong Hong, the last senior North Korean diplomat to defect, confirmed in an interview on South Korean television that Jo came from a family of diplomats and his father was an ambassador, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Thae added that the position in Rome is critical because it involves negotiations with the World Food Program over food aid.
Thae left his post as deputy ambassador to Britain in 2016 after he ignored an order to return to Pyongyang because he wanted a better future for his children. North Korea claimed that Thae defected to avoid punishment after committing sex crimes
North Korean authorities are extremely sensitive about defections and grant overseas travel only to citizens deemed most loyal to the regime.
Jo has been the North’s acting envoy in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam to protest North Korea’s nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Min Joo Kim