North Korea

North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy the latest high-profile defector to flee Kim regime

  • South Korea’s intelligence agency said Jo Song-gil and his wife fled the embassy in Rome in late November
  • Italian authorities said they were ‘protecting him in a safe place’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2019, 9:12pm

North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has become the latest high-ranking official to defect from the socialist regime, disappearing from the embassy with his wife late last year.

South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki, of the ruling Democratic Party, said the deputy head of the National Intelligence Service, Seo Dong-goo, told parliament’s intelligence committee that acting North Korea ambassador Jo Song-gil, 48, “disappeared” with his wife in November.

“The NIS says Jo and his wife fled from the embassy in early November,” the lawmaker told journalists, adding Jo was supposed to return home after his tenure in Rome ended in November.

It was unclear whether Jo was accompanied by his children or where he was seeking asylum.

According to South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo daily newspaper, Jo had asked Italian authorities for protection in early December, in an attempt to flee to an unknown country.

Italian authorities were “agonising” over what to do but were “protecting him in a safe place”, the newspaper quoted an unnamed official as saying.

If confirmed, this would be the first defection by a North Korean diplomat since 2016, when deputy ambassador to London Thae Yong-ho fled to the South with his wife and two sons.

Jo had been serving as acting ambassador, with support from three other North Korean diplomats, after Italy expelled then ambassador Mun Jong-nam for the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017.

According to the newspaper, the Jo family had been living in Rome since 2015 with no direct relatives still living in Pyongyang – a rare privilege granted only to North Korean power elites because it leaves nobody behind to prevent them from defecting.

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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 cited an unnamed North Korea expert as saying.

The Kim dynasty has ruled the impoverished but nuclear-armed state for three generations with little tolerance for dissent, and the regime stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.

North Korean diplomats are usually called back home when they have spent about three years overseas. Many are aggrieved when they are ordered to return home from developed countries where they can raise their children in a presumably favourable environment, North Korean defectors have said.

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Thae once said among the motives of his refusal to return to Pyongyang was his desire to keep raising his two sons outside the impoverished socialist state.

Several diplomats working overseas have defected to the West over the past three decades.

They include Ko Yong-hwan and Hyon Song-il, who defected to the South in 1991 and 1996 respectively after abandoning their posts in Africa, and Jang Sung-gil, a former ambassador to Egypt who took asylum in the United States with his family and brother who was also a diplomat working in London.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse