January 04, 2019 12:39
Acting North Korean Ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil disappeared with his family last November as he was about to return to Pyongyang, the National Intelligence Service here said Thursday.
Jo (44) is reportedly seeking asylum in a third country, though Italy and South Korea have denied that he approached them. Some sources say the diplomat was responsible for procuring luxury products in Europe for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Jo is the second high-profile North Korean diplomat to defect in recent years after Thae Yong-ho, the deputy ambassador to the U.K. who fled to South Korea in 2016.
Lawmaker Kim Min-ki told reporters after a briefing from the NIS that Jo fled the Rome embassy when his term was coming to an end. But Kim added that the NIS has heard nothing from Jo since then, suggesting that he does not want to come to South Korea, where he would automatically be a citizen.
One former North Korean diplomat who defected after Kim came to power said Jo "must have seen what kind of treatment [Thae] was receiving here since the Moon Jae-in administration came into office" as it seeks better ties with North Korea. "He may have felt that his own safety and that of his family would be threatened if he came to South Korea right now," he added.
Jo took over when Italy deported Ambassador Mun Jong-nam after the North's latest nuclear test in September 2017. Mun is now ambassador to Russia.
The former North Korean diplomat said, "Italy is the supply route for various luxury products Kim Jong-un and his family consume. Jo was appointed as acting ambassador because he is fluent in Italian after studying there."
Both his father and father-in-law were high-ranking diplomats, according to Thae, who once worked with him in Europe. He was allowed to bring his children with him, which suggests he had until then been a trusted member of the North Korean elite. North Korea is careful whom it sends to Rome since it is also the headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme.
Another former North Korean diplomat said, "Widespread sanctions made it difficult for North Korea to procure luxury products, and Jo probably went into hiding because he was afraid of being punished."
Experts believe Jo's defection reflects the volatile situation in North Korea following prolonged international sanctions. Kim started a war on corruption in the second half of last year, purging several high-level officials in the Workers Party and military, and Jo disappeared just as the purge spread to diplomatic missions overseas.
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