North Korea ambassador to Italy ‘goes into hiding’

Jo Song-gil reportedly applies for asylum in an ‘unidentified western country’ in what would be a significant defection

Thursday 03 January 2019 08:56
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South Korean MPs told North Korean diplomat is in hiding in Italy

A senior North Korean diplomat who reportedly sought asylum in an “unidentified western country” went into hiding with his wife in November, South Korea’s spy agency has told lawmakers in Seoul.

Jo Song-gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, is believed to currently be in a safe house with his family, in what is being treated as a significant defection.

If proven to be true, the defection would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong-un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a player in international geopolitics.

Mr Jo has been the acting ambassador since 2017 and had asked Italian authorities for protection prior to being recalled to North Korea, according to South Korean daily newspaper Joongang Ilbo.

Italy has said it has not given the 48-year-old asylum and the country’s foreign minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, said he had received no indication that an asylum application to stay in Rome had been made.

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South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service shared information about Mr Jo during a closed-door briefing.

He did not say whether the spy agency revealed any information about Mr Jo’s current whereabouts or whether the diplomat had plans to defect to South Korea.

Mr Jo is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime”, the Joongang said, citing an unnamed North Korea expert as saying.

Usually North Korean diplomats who are sent abroad are required to leave behind several family members in Pyongyang to prevent their defection.

Mr Jo however moved to Rome in 2015 with his wife and children, suggesting that he is from a privileged family.

North Korea has not yet commented on Mr Jo’s status.

If confirmed it would be the first defection by a North Korean diplomat since 2016, when Thae Yong-ho, the deputy ambassador to London, fled to South Korea with his family.

Mr Thae said he had switched sides partly to give his three children a better future after he had been ordered to return to Pyongyang.

About 30,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government figures.

Many defectors have said they wanted to leave North Korea’s harsh political system and poverty. North Korea often accuses the south of deceiving or paying people to defect, or claims that they have been kidnapped.

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