A North Korean diplomat stationed in Italy went missing two months ago, a South Korean official revealed Thursday amid reports of a defection to the West.
Jo Song Gil, Pyongyang’s acting ambassador in Rome, fled the North Korean Embassy in the Italian capital in November and has not been heard from since, Kim Min Ki, an MP in Seoul, told reporters after being briefed by the National Intelligence Service.
"Acting ambassador Jo Song Gil's term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November," he said.
The spy agency said it could not confirm which country was now protecting Jo and his family, and Italy’s foreign ministry told the BBC it had no record of an application for their asylum.
However, South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported Thursday that the 48-year-old diplomat had applied for asylum in an unspecified Western country and that the Italian government has been protecting the family in “a safe place” since early December.
Jo became acting ambassador in October 2017 after Rome kicked out then-ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest at North Korea’s nuclear test a month earlier, which violated U.N. resolutions.
Jo first traveled to Italy in 2015 with his family, JoongAng Ilbo reported.
Any defection by a high-profile member of the elite is seen as an embarrassment for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Jo’s alleged defection will particularly sting as he is reportedly the son and son-in-law of high-ranking officials within the government in Pyongyang.
The last senior diplomat to defect from the regime was Thae Yong Ho, who was deputy ambassador to the U.K. when he fled to South Korea in 2016. Ho went on to become an outspoken critic of Kim, urging the West to help spread information inside the Hermit Kingdom to undermine the dictator’s position.
Speaking to South Korea media, Ho said Jo was responsible for delivering luxury goods to North Korea via an Italian company and that he might have more information about North Korea’s nuclear program.
Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the joint press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Paekhwawon State Guesthouse on September 19, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)