Seoul Mustn't Hang N.Korean Diplomat out to Dry

      January 08, 2019 13:19

      Acting North Korean Ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil, who disappeared with his family last November, escaped to a third country but was discovered by Italian intelligence officials and taken back to Italy and put in protective custody in a secret location. It appears that Jo and his family have failed to win asylum in a foreign country for more than two months. If reports that North Korea dispatched secret agents to Rome to find him but failed are true, their safety could be at risk.

      It remains unclear in which foreign country Jo sought asylum. A majority of diplomats who fled North Korea defected to the U.S. or South Korea, and it would be odd if Jo had initially tried a different route. Former North Korean Ambassador to Egypt Jang Sung-gil defected to the U.S. back in 1997, while Kim Jong-un's maternal aunt Ko Yong-suk also gained asylum in the U.S. Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador in London, and Ko Yong-hwan, a diplomat in the Congo, chose South Korea. Defecting North Korean diplomats are valuable troves of information on the secretive regime and usually welcomed with open arms by the U.S. and the South. The U.S. has been known to expedite asylum proceedings for high-ranking North Korean defectors.

      But the situation facing Jo is suddenly completely different. U.S. President Donald Trump is busy trying to package his negotiations with the belligerent North Korean leader as a success and sure to reject Jo if he is considered an obstacle. U.S. officials estimate that it could take months just to debrief him. Jo must also be aware that the Moon Jae-in administration here will not welcome him for fear of upsetting the North in any way and probably fears for his and his family's safety in the South.

      The National Intelligence Service told lawmakers that it has not even sought to contact Jo. In other words, it does not want to get involved, even though Jo is automatically a South Korean citizen under the Constitution if he defects. But for the Moon administration, appeasing North Korea is more important than saving the lives of a citizen and his family. The Jos must be feeling desperate. They risked their lives to escape, but are faced with vast indifference from the South Korean and U.S. governments. This is unacceptable.

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