North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil reportedly ‘disappears’ with his family
Jo Song-gil was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy until he disappeared in November. (AP: Parish of Farra di Soligo)
A North Korean diplomat who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy has gone missing after reports he was seeking asylum in the West.
- South Korean newspaper JongAng Ilbo reported that Mr Jo was the son or son-in-law of a top-ranking North Korean official
- If his defection is confirmed, Mr Jo would be the latest in a growing list of diplomats who have fled North Korea
- To combat this, leader Kim Jong-un forced the children of diplomats stationed overseas to remain in North Korea
The diplomat, Jo Song-gil, disappeared with his wife and children after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, according to Kim Min-ki, a South Korean politician who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service.
The Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Mr Jo, 48, had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a “safe place” with his family under the protection of the Italian Government.
But a senior diplomatic source in Rome said Italy’s foreign ministry knew nothing about the reports and a second diplomatic source said the ministry had no record of Mr Jo seeking asylum in Italy.
The second source added that North Korea had announced in late 2018 that it was sending a new envoy to Rome.
“It was a perfectly normal procedure,” the source said.
Mr Kim told reporters he had some information about the case but could not discuss it.
“They left the diplomatic mission and vanished,” he said.
The official reportedly fled the North Korean mission in Rome with his family. (Reuters: Alessandro Bianchi)
Mr Jo took up the acting envoy post in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong-nam in protest over North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions.
Mr Jo’s stint began in May 2015 and was due at the end of November, Mr Kim said.
A source familiar with the matter, who asked to remain unnamed in order to speak about a sensitive political issue, told Reuters that Mr Jo was officially replaced as acting ambassador by Kim Chon in late November.
The source could not confirm the newspaper report or whether Mr Jo was still based in Italy.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House said earlier it had no knowledge of the matter.
Citing an unidentified expert, JoongAng Ilbo said he was known to be the son or son-in-law of a top-ranking North Korean official.
North Korean diplomats forced to leave children at home
If confirmed, Mr Jo would join a slowly growing list of senior diplomats who have sought to flee the impoverished, oppressive North under the rule of Kim Jong-un.
After he defected, Mr Thae said he realised his sons would have miserable lives in North Korea. (AP: Ed Jones, Pool Photo)
Thae Yong-ho, the North’s then deputy ambassador to Britain, defected with his family to South Korea in August 2016, becoming the highest-ranking diplomat to do so.
North Korea forced diplomats stationed overseas to leave children at home after Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011.
Mr Thae, the former deputy ambassador to Britain, said in his 2018 memoir that was the main reason behind his defection, calling it a “hostage” scheme.
However, Mr Thae also wrote there were some exceptions for those from the top echelons and who were seen as the most loyal to Mr Kim.