SEOUL — North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has gone into hiding, South Korea’s intelligence officials told lawmakers on Thursday.
Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, disappeared from the official residence in what would be the latest in a growing list of defections by Pyongyang’s envoys.
Such a high-profile break would be a humiliating blow to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who is seeking to establish himself as a legitimate leader with global standing after a year of unprecedented diplomatic outreach.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki briefed reporters about Jo’s possible defection based on information shared by Seoul’s spy agency in a closed-door hearing.
According to the lawmaker, Jo and his wife disappeared before the end of his term, which was scheduled for late November.
The lawmaker said that in the two months since, Jo has not contacted South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency, suggesting that he could be seeking asylum in a different country.
A press officer for the Italian Foreign Ministry said officials there have no record of the defection and that the North Koreans notified the ministry six weeks ago that Jo was leaving his post.
Officials at the North Korean Embassy in Rome could not be reached for comment.
Antonio Razzi, a former Italian lawmaker, said in a phone interview Thursday that he had gotten to know Jo over the years and that they had last met Oct. 29.
Over lunch that day, Jo told him that his term was over and that he had to fly back home.
“He told me he would first go on a tour of Italy with his family,” said Razzi, who is the head of the Italian-North Korean bilateral friendship group. “That he wanted to get to know Italy, and that he’d go north, maybe Milan or Venice. I told him, ‘Let’s toast before you leave. Then we’ll meet again in Pyongyang.’ ”
A month later, Razzi tried to call Jo’s Italian cell number, with no luck. But he said he “would never have expected him to defect,” adding that Jo seemed “terribly fond of his country, and woe to those who’d speak ill of it.”
A call to Jo was not returned, and his WhatsApp messaging account says he last accessed the app on Nov. 15.
The South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Thursday that Jo had applied to an unspecified Western country for asylum. The paper quoted the source as saying that the Italian government is “protecting him in a safe place” but “agonizing” over the next step. Jo, 48, is believed to be a son or son-in-law of a high-level official in North Korea, JoongAng Ilbo reported, citing an unnamed expert.
Thae Yong Ho, the last senior North Korean diplomat to defect, in Britain in 2016, confirmed in a South Korean television interview that Jo came from a family of diplomats and that his father was an ambassador, the Associated Press reported.
Thae added that the position in Rome is critical because it involves negotiations with the World Food Program over food aid.
North Korean authorities are extremely sensitive about defections and authorize overseas travel only for citizens deemed most loyal to the regime.
Jo became the North’s acting envoy in Rome in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam to protest North Korea’s nuclear test in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Pitrelli reported from Rome.