North Korea’s Top Diplomat is Missing After Seeking Asylum in Italy

The highest-ranking North Korean diplomat in Italy is currently unaccounted for after seeking political asylum in the West, a South Korean deputy said Thursday after a closed-door meeting with South Korean intelligence services. According to his version, the acting ambassador has fled and lives hidden.

“The mission of interim ambassador Jo Song Gil had to end at the end of last November and he fled the diplomatic complex in early November with his wife,” Kim Min-ki told reporters after a South Korean newspaper reported that he had asylum request

According to this deputy, Jo Song Gil disappeared after leaving the Embassy without prior notice. Earlier on Thursday, the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, citing an unnamed diplomatic source, had reported that Jo, 48, had sought asylum from an unspecified western country and was in a “safe place” with her family and under the protection of the Government of Italy.

If confirmed, Jo would join a growing list of diplomats trying to flee the impoverished and oppressive regime of the North, under the rule of Kim Jong Un. Thae Yong Ho, deputy ambassador of the North in Great Britain, defected with his family to South Korea in August 2016, becoming the highest-ranking diplomat to do so.

Jo assumed the position of interim ambassador in October 2017 after the then North Korean ambassador to Italy, Mun Jong Nam, was expelled in protest at nuclear tests and long-range missiles that defy sanctions by the UN Security Council.

His work as interim ambassador began in May 2015 and had come to an end at the end of November, according to Kim. A source familiar with the case, who has asked Reuters to remain anonymous, has indicated that Jo was replaced in office by Kim Chon at the end of November. This source has not been able to specify if the diplomat has defected or if he is still in Italy.

The Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean Presidency, has said that it has no knowledge of this issue and the Italian Embassy in Seoul, which is also responsible for North Korea’s issues, has not wanted to comment on it either.

North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world, but it has 48 embassies and several consulates, mainly in Asia. Its diplomats are characterized by their loyalty to the regime are carefully chosen they maintain a discreet profile in their missions and are supervised by their own colleagues.