North Korea's former acting ambassador to Italy who disappeared in 2018 has been secretly living in South Korea since July of last year, the chairman of the intelligence committee of the South Korean National Assembly said Wednesday, confirming a high-level defection that is sure to embarass Pyongyang.
The development also comes not long after Kim Jong Un made a rare public apology for North Korean soldiers shooting and killing a South Korean official at sea.
Lawmaker and chairman of the intelligence committee Jeon Hae-cheol told reporters on Wednesday that Jo, the former acting ambassador to Italy, came to South Korea voluntarily last year.
He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to the South, Jeon said.
Earlier, Ha Tae-keung, another lawmaker and member of the committee wrote on his Facebook page that Jo entered South Korea and is under the protection of the government.
According to the chairman, however, Jo is not doing well since he is concerned about his family remaining in the North.
In November 2018, Jo and his wife disappeared from his diplomatic posting in Rome right before he was scheduled to return to Pyongyang at the end of his term, but their daughter could not escape and was repatriated to the North, Italy confirmed.
The last senior North Korean diplomat to defect to the South was Thae Yong-ho, a deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was elected as a lawmaker for the Gangnam district of Seoul during polls this year.
Thae explained to Yonhap News Agency that Jo was one of the most senior diplomats and took a special elite course in the Hermit Kingdom.
"He was an expert in Italy and France and graduated from the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. His father and father-in-laws alike were diplomats."
Thae said on Facebook on Wednesday that he did not know the details of the case but that in general family of diplomats left behind would be at risk.
"The level of punishment imposed on family members could be different depending on where the refugees defected to," Thae wrote.