Top N. Korean diplomat in Italy goes into hiding: S. Korean spy agency

Lim Chang-won Reporter Posted : 2019-01-03 17:29 Updated : 2019-01-03 17:29
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[Yonhap News Photo]


SEOUL -- A top North Korean diplomat in Italy went into hiding with his wife in early November after he walked away from his legation without completing his term, South Korea's spy agency said Thursday. His disappearance sparked speculation about defection.

The term of Jo Song-gil, the charge d'affaires of North Korea's embassy in Rome, was to end at the end of November, Kim Min-ki, a lawmaker of the Democratic Party, told reporters, citing a report by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to an intelligence committee in parliament.

The spy agency said that Jo and his wife disappeared in early November, according to Kim. Yonhap News Agency reported that Jo is believed to have applied for personal security protection from the Italian government in early December -- a diplomatic procedure aimed at making sure he won't be repatriated while seeking asylum in a third country.

Italian authorities are reportedly protecting the 48-year-old and his family at a safe place, Yonhap said. Jo, who was dispatched to Italy in 2015, has run the embassy since Italy expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam in October 2017 following North Korea's sixth nuclear test.

Yonhap quoted a diplomatic source in Rome as saying that Jo had rarely engaged in outside activity as he had limits on carrying out his ambassadorial duties as acting chief of mission.

Jo appeared to have decided to seek asylum after he was ordered to return to Pyongyang, Yonhap said, adding the education of his children could be a reason, as in the case of Thae Yong-ho, a former minister at the North's embassy in London, who arrived in Seoul with his family in August 2016.

North Korea has condemned Thae as "human scum" and a "special class criminal." High-ranking defectors have been under protection by South Korean security authorities to prevent possible attacks by North Korean agents. 

Hwang Jang-yop, a former North Korean ruling party secretary who defected to Seoul in 1997, has been the permanent target of assassination by North Korea until he died of heart failure in 2010. Hwang, known as the main architect of North Korea's governing "Juche (self-reliance)" ideology, was the highest-ranking official from Pyongyang.