Pyongyang’s envoy to Rome remains AWOL

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Pyongyang’s envoy to Rome remains AWOL

Speculation is growing over the whereabouts of Jo Song-gil, the former acting ambassador of North Korea to Italy who disappeared from his post in November.

One prospect is that Jo may be in touch with an intelligence agency in Italy.


Jo Song-gil

“As far as we know in the Foreign Ministry, acting Ambassador Jo has not requested asylum in Italy in the past or currently,” said a spokesperson for the Italian Foreign Ministry in a press conference on Thursday. “We also do not know if agencies other than the Foreign Ministry, such as the intelligence agency or other foreign embassies, are providing him protection or assistance to apply for asylum in a third country.”

“Foreign intelligence services usually provide assistance to North Korean defectors,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Jo, possibly fearing that seeking assistance from the Foreign Ministry may reveal his whereabouts, may be in touch with the intelligence agency of Italy to receive assistance.”

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed Thursday Jo left his posting in early November and disappeared with his wife. The NIS said that Jo’s posting in Italy had been set to end at the end of November.

The Italian Embassy in Seoul said on Friday that Jo was replaced by Kim Chon, a North Korean official, in November after he went missing.

“All I can tell you is that Jo Song-gil, who was acting ambassador since Oct. 9, 2017, has been replaced by Kim Chon on Nov. 20, 2018,” an official of the Italian Embassy in Seoul told the Yonhap News Friday.

The JoongAng Ilbo reported exclusively earlier on Thursday that Jo, according to a diplomatic source, sought protection from the Italian government sometime in early December while seeking asylum in an unnamed Western country.

What Jo did or where he was from early November to early December also remains a mystery.

“The fact that Jo asked the Italian government for protection a month after he left the embassy shows that he was seeking a safe haven during that time but could not find one,” a former North Korean envoy who defected to the South told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity. “I know from my own experience that you feel chased all the time as soon as you leave the embassy. I couldn’t sleep properly for a while. Even after I landed in South Korea, I used to be paranoid that I would be caught here.”

The NIS said it hasn’t heard anything from Jo and that it is not in contact with him.

There is a possibility that Jo may have successfully found asylum in a third country already. The host country has no obligation to announce this fact and Jo’s whereabouts may not be publicized for a while, if at all.

It is also possible that Jo may have been caught by North Korean officials in Italy and sent back to the North. In this case, the Italian authorities must have a record of his deportation, but the government of Italy has not made any announcements regarding that possibility.

Another possibility is that Jo crossed the border of Italy into a third country but was caught and deported from there. In that case, the country would have a record of deportation.

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