North Korean ambassador to Italy in hiding, South Korean MP says
A South Korean MP has confirmed that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song-gil, has gone into hiding, after reports he had asked for asylum.
Kim Min-ki said Jo’s mandate had been due to end in late November, and he and his wife had fled the North Korean embassy in Rome without notice at the beginning of that month.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Jo had applied for asylum to an unidentified western country.
Italian authorities were “protecting him in a safe place” but “agonising” over what to do next, the newspaper quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying.
The Italian news agency Ansa reported on Thursday that Italy had not received an asylum request from a North Korean official.
“For diplomatic purposes, at the time the ministry was informed about the changeover of the appointment,” a foreign ministry source told the agency. “That changeover then took place.”
Jo, 48, had been acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled the previous ambassador, Mun Jong-nam, in protest at a nuclear test by the North a month earlier in violation of UN resolutions.
An unnamed North Korea expert told JoongAng that Jo was “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime”.
North Korean diplomats serving overseas are often required to leave behind several family members – typically children – to discourage their defection. However, Jo came to Rome in May 2015 with his wife and children, suggesting he may be from a privileged family, JoongAng said.
The last senior North Korean diplomat to defect was Thae Yong-ho, who abandoned his post as deputy ambassador in London in 2016.
Thae said he had switched sides partly to give his three children a better future after being ordered to return to the North.