A former senior North Korean diplomat to Italy is currently in South Korea, having disappeared from Rome in late 2018, an opposition member of the National Assembly has revealed.
Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November 2018, and his whereabouts have been unclear since.
The two reportedly left just before Jo’s term as the acting ambassador in Rome ended.
According to Ha Tae-keung of the opposition People Power Party, the diplomat entered South Korea in July last year and is “under the protection of authorities”.
Sources later told the Yonhap news agency that Jo arrived in South Korea alongside his wife and that they travelled through a third country.
Before the revelation of his defection, Jo was said to be seeking asylum in a third country under the protection of the Italian and other governments.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has refused to confirm the report.
But if confirmed to be true, Jo would be one of the highest-ranking officials to settle in the south, Yonhap said.
In 2016, Thae Yong ho, a senior North Korean diplomat in London, defected to South Korea with his family.
Defections drive tension
Opposition legislator Ha has been closely involved on issues relating to North Korean defectors. In 2018, he also revealed that a North Korean defector to the south was abducted by Pyongyang during a visit to China.
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The issue of defections has been a long-running source of irritation between Pyongyang and Seoul.
In June, North Korea’s army threatened to re-enter border areas demilitarised under a peace pact after defector groups in the south carried out their campaign to send propaganda leaflets designed to encourage defections across the border.
Even some in South Korea have blamed the defector groups’ actions for increasing cross-border tensions unnecessarily.
The issue contributed to Pyongyang’s decision to destroy the inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong.
In June, Pyongyang destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong, citing the actions of defectors now living in the South [File: Korean Central News Agency via Reuters]The office was established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has since called for the re-establishment of the office and the resumption of talks, even as negotiations between the US and North Korea on nuclear disarmament and the lifting of sanctions have stalled.
Moon made the call in the aftermath of another defection incident, in which a South Korean fishery official was shot and killed by North Korean maritime border officials after reportedly attempting to defect to the North.