Defect to South Korea, North's ex-diplomat urges missing colleague

The flag of North Korea is pictured on the facade of North Korea's embassy in Italy on Jan 3, 2019, in Rome.
The flag of North Korea is pictured on the facade of North Korea's embassy in Italy on Jan 3, 2019, in Rome.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South, yesterday urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the US.

Mr Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, South Korean lawmakers said last Thursday.

Mr Jo has sought asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, Italy's La Repubblica newspaper said last Friday, citing an unidentified diplomatic source.

In an open letter, Mr Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang's former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Mr Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Mr Jo to follow in his footsteps.

To defect to the South is an "obligation, not a choice" for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Mr Thae said, calling Seoul "the outpost" for that task.

"If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward," he said in the letter released on his website.

"If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself."


Mr Thae said his family visited Mr Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Although South Korea could not be "heaven on earth" it is a place where Mr Jo can realise his wishes, Mr Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors in the country.

"Isn't it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives - to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?" Mr Thae said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 06, 2019, with the headline 'Defect to S. Korea, North's ex-diplomat urges missing colleague'. Print Edition | Subscribe