North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy has disappeared, raising suspicions that he may have defected or sought political asylum, South Korean sources said Thursday.
Jo Song Gil, who became acting ambassador in October 2017, was set to end his term in late November last year.
According to South Korea’s spy agency, he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November and they have not heard from him since.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that a diplomatic source said that Jo is in a “safe place” and is believed to be with his family.
Italy’s foreign ministry has said they have no record of any asylum requests made by Jo, but if his defection is confirmed, it would be an embarrassing blow to the North Korean government.
It would be the highest profile defection since 2016, when Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to Britain, defected to the South, citing disillusionment with the Kim Jong Un regime’s rule and a desire for a better education for his children.
North Korean diplomats are usually sent abroad alone. Their families remain in North Korea as insurance against defection.
Jo, however reportedly was able to get around this because his father and father-in-law were also diplomats.
Still, experts speculate that if a defection is confirmed, the Kim regime will find someone to punish, but overall it would have little effect on Pyongyang’s diplomatic overtures.
“[The regime] will probably deal with it internally the way they always do,” said Leon Sigal, director of the Social Science Research Council’s Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.
“I don’t think it will affect anything else, but it will affect the people associated with [Jo] in North Korea badly,” Sigal said.
Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he believed that a defection might actually hurt the diplomatic ambitions of South Korea, which has made reconciliation with North Korea the centerpiece of its foreign relations since.
“The more interesting question is what Moon Jae-In’s administration does about this if [Jo] really wants to defect,” said Bush, referring to the South’s liberal president. Moon held three summits with Kim Jong Un in 2018 and is scheduled to meet Kim again early this year.
“Moon would like to have another summit with Kim Jong Un and want him to visit Seoul. And I’m sure the Moon administration would be worried that this would complicate the effort to put one together,” he said.
“What’s unique about [North Korean] diplomats is that they have much more opportunity to defect than anybody else living in North Korea,” said Bush.
“If they are being reassigned to Pyongyang and afraid of not getting out of there again, they might take this opportunity,” he said.
The Department of State was contacted by RFA for this report but did not respond to inquiries on the subject with specific details.
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim for RFA’s Korean Service.