Lawmakers in South Korea revealed Wednesday that a senior North Korean diplomat who disappeared in 2018 while stationed in Italy has been living in the South, but U.S. experts said the revelation could endanger the defector envoy’s family still living in the North.
In November 2018, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil vanished alongside his wife. At the time it was not publicly known exactly where they were or what their intentions were, but it was widely believed that they had defected or sought political asylum.
But Ha Tae-keung, a member of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly said Wednesday in a Facebook post that Jo traveled to South Korea in July 2019 and is currently under Seoul’s protection.
Ha said the committee decided to make the information public to prevent a media frenzy after a South Korean TV station reported on the defection Tuesday. According to Ha, further details were withheld to protect Jo’s safety.
The committee’s chairman Jeon Hae-chol on Wednesday told reporters that Jo asked several times to resettle in South Korea but wanted to keep his defection a secret because he was worried about relatives in the North, which is known to punish the families of defectors.
“Defections always come with collateral damage,” Jean Lee of the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank told RFA Wednesday.
Lee and several other North Korea watchers in the U.S. said they were worried that the revelation endangered Jo’s family. Jo’s daughter is said to have returned to North Korea prior to Jo and his wife vanishing in 2018.
“I worry first for the family members involved, both those who have defected and those who remain in North Korea. At the end of the day, a family has been torn apart. Let’s hope no harm comes to those who were left behind,” said Lee.
Jo’s news was a reminder that not even North Korea’s high-ranking officials and their families have freedom of movement, she said.
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) called Assemblyman Ha’s reveal the “height of irresponsibility.”
“He has put Jo and his wife in great danger. His daughter had already been returned to north Korea when Jo and his wife "vanished" and if she is still alive, I expect her to suffer even more,” Maxwell told RFA.
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) told RFA that it was likely that Jo’s defection could drastically alter the way North Korean diplomats are assigned to foreign countries.
“It may make it very difficult for North Korean diplomats and trade representatives to be sent overseas with their families, their children in particular,” he said, adding, “Family members who are already overseas may be recalled and sent back to North Korea.
“It is hard to understand why such information would be made public in South Korea. I am concerned about the personal safety of Mr. Jo and his wife,” he said.
Scarlatoiu noted a rise in defections by North Korean diplomats of late. Prior to Jo, the most senior official to defect to the South was Hwang Jang-yop, a secretary in the Korean Workers’ Party who escaped through the South Korean Embassy in Beijing in 1997.
The most recent senior official to defect was Thae Yong-ho, who was a minister at the North Korean embassy in London but defected with his family in 2016. Thae is now a lawmaker in South Korea’s National Assembly.
Scarlatoiu said Jo’s defection would reinforce the impression that North Korean elites have lost faith in the country’s leadership, especially those who work overseas.
“It further complicates the Kim regime’s clearance process for those sent overseas,” he said.
“Assemblyman Thae Yong-ho and Jo Song-gil come from very high songbun [status] and were trusted as loyal officials. And yet, they defected,” he said,
Maxwell, meanwhile, said North Korea was likely aware of Jo’s defection.
“It does somewhat undermine the regime, but its Propaganda and Agitation Department can and will spin this to make it appear to be South Korea's fault,” he said.
“Surely North Korea will try to exploit this and use it against South Korea,” said Maxwell.
North Korea spent much of June staging angry public venting rallies at defectors, denouncing them as traitors after small groups of them launched balloons across the inter-Korean border carrying leaflets denouncing leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong called the leaflet-launchers “human scum” and “mongrel dogs,” while Pyongyang also denounced Seoul for failing to stop the launches.
Yong-Chool Ha of the University of Washington said the North “will make a fuss out of it and be sure to issue accusatory statements against South Korea.”
“But the issue will not cause much of a problem because it happened some time ago, and there is nothing much to be gained out of it for the North,” Prof. Ha added.
Neither South Korea’s unification or foreign affairs ministries could confirm Jo’s defection and neither of the assemblymen explained how they learned of it.
Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), meanwhile said on Wednesday it “will not confirm” Jo’s defection as described in media reports or Assemblyman Ha’s Facebook post.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have escaped and settled in South Korea since 1998 according to statistics from the South Korean Ministry of Unification, including more than 12,000 between 2011 and 2019.
Reported by Jeongeun Ji for RFA’s Korean Service.