October 08, 2020 09:40
Jo Song-gil, the former chargé d'affaires at the North Korean Embassy in Rome who disappeared in November 2018, was denied asylum in Switzerland and France before coming to South Korea after all.
A diplomatic source told the Chosun Ilbo on Wednesday that Jo sought asylum in the U.S. and Europe because he feared for the safety of his family in North Korea if he defected to South Korea. Jo majored in French and wanted most to settle in France, but failed and then traveled through Switzerland and knocked on the door of a South Korean embassy in an East European country.
He was unable to take his daughter with him, and she was forcibly returned to North Korea. All North Koreans are automatically South Korean citizens under the Constitution, but the North Korean regime reacts with particular fury if they defect to the South.
Minjoo Party lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol, who is the head of the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee, said Jo is under the protection of the government and came here "voluntarily" after asking "several times." But Jeon did not reveal what Jo did between the time he disappeared in Rome in November 2018 and his arrival in South Korea in July last year.
He said Jo is worried about his family's safety and does not want to make the details public. He is said to be living in a safe house provided by the government. He is not expected to show himself in public, unlike Thae Yong-ho, the former No. 2 at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected in 2016 and is currently a lawmaker with the main opposition People Power Party.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in a National Assembly audit on Wednesday that she was "surprised to read about it in the newspapers" and added that she knows nothing about Jo's defection, which would be surprising if true.
Thae in a statement said, "When I was serving as vice director of the Europe department at North Korea's Foreign Ministry, Jo Song-gil was a member of the team in charge of Italy and I knew him for 20 years."
"If a diplomat defects from a North Korean embassy to South Korea, he is labeled as a traitor and turncoat. Nobody knows what kind of punishment his family will be subject to," Thae added. "I hope the media will consider the fact that he is a father who had to leave his daughter behind and refrain from exposing him."
There is some perplexity why Jo's arrival here was revealed only now. Some politicians speculate that this has to do with the appointment of NIS chief Park Jie-won in July this year. A former seasoned lawmaker, Park has been more willing to share information about North Korea with the National Assembly than his predecessor Suh Hoon. Some suspect he is trying to divert attention from the government's shameful behavior over the killing of a South Korean official by North Korean soldiers at sea.
There is also speculation that the government kept Jo's arrival here secret because it still had hopes of engaging with North Korea.
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