North’s envoy in Italy vanishes

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North’s envoy in Italy vanishes

South Korea’s top spy agency confirmed Thursday that Jo Song-gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, disappeared from his embassy last November, following a report that the diplomat recently sought asylum overseas.

Jo and his wife “fled the North Korean Embassy in Rome together in early November and have disappeared,” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee Thursday afternoon.

The NIS said that Jo’s posting in Italy had been set to end at the end of November, said Rep. Kim Min-ki, a two-term lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party who serves on the Intelligence Committee, after the meeting.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported exclusively earlier Thursday that Jo sought asylum from an unnamed Western country.

Jo “sought protection from the Italian government early last month,” the newspaper quoted a diplomatic source as saying Wednesday. “He sought for protection to avoid being summoned back to his country in the process of seeking asylum from a third country.”

Jo was dispatched to the North Korean Embassy in Rome in May 2015, initially as a third secretary, and was promoted to first secretary in 2017, according to the NIS’s report to the Intelligence Committee. There were said to be four officials working at the embassy.

Jo served as acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after North Korean Ambassador Mun Jong-nam was expelled from Italy in response to Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, 2017.

North Korea and Italy established diplomatic relations in January 2000 and Pyongyang opened its embassy in Rome in July of that year.

The JoongAng Ilbo also reported that Jo is the son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North Korean regime, quoting an unnamed North Korea expert.

South Korea’s Blue House and Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially said Thursday that it could not confirm the report.

The NIS was not able to confirm if Jo has any children.

Likewise, it was not able to confirm Jo’s current whereabouts or any details about the asylum situation.

It is unclear if Jo will try to come to South Korea.

The NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo “in the past two months since his disappearance.”

Main opposition Liberty Korea Party Rep. Lee Eun-jae, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters after the NIS briefing that Jo was 44 years old, younger than earlier reported.

Jo is said to be fluent in English and Italian, she added.

Other North Korea diplomats who have sought asylum while dispatched to overseas missions include Ko Young-hwan, a former first secretary of the embassy in the Republic of Congo, who defected to South Korea in 1991, and Hyon Song-il, a former third secretary at the embassy in Zambia, who defected in 1996.

Chang Sung-gil, North Korea’s ambassador to Egypt, his brother and their families sought political asylum from Washington and defected to the United States in 1997.

The highest-profile defector more recently was Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, who defected to the South in 2016 with his family.

North Korean diplomats usually are summoned back to their countries after two or three years, though there are cases in which envoys may spend a longer period of time.

North Korean diplomats posted in developed countries may feel disgruntled or desperate when summoned back to Pyongyang, especially if they have children being educated broad.

A North Korean defector and former diplomat told the JoongAng Ilbo, “Some diplomats consider seeking asylum when they hear that they are being summoned back home when they take into consideration the future of their children who are receiving advanced education overseas.”

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