N. Korean diplomat said to be missing in Italy, seeking asylum

A North Korean diplomat who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy has gone missing, a South Korean member of parliament said on Thursday, after a South Korean newspaper reported he was seeking asylum in the West.
 The North Korean flag flies inside North Korea's embassy compound in Rome, Italy on Jan 3, 2019.
The North Korean flag flies inside North Korea's embassy compound in Rome, Italy on Jan 3, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL • A North Korean diplomat, who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy, has gone missing, a South Korean Member of Parliament said yesterday, after a South Korean newspaper reported he was seeking asylum in the West.

The diplomat, Mr Jo Song Gil, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, according to Mr Kim Min-ki, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

Earlier yesterday, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, citing a diplomatic source, said Mr Jo, 48, had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a "safe place" with his family under the protection of Italy's government.

A senior diplomatic source in Rome said Italy's Foreign Ministry knew nothing about the reports. A second diplomatic source said the ministry had no record of Mr Jo seeking asylum in Italy.

The source added that North Korea had announced late last year that it was sending a new envoy to Rome. "It was a perfectly normal procedure," the source said.

Mr Kim told reporters he had some information about the case, but could not discuss it.

"They left the diplomatic mission and vanished," Mr Kim said, referring to Mr Jo and his family.

The JoongAng Ilbo said Mr Jo was with his wife and children. Citing an unidentified source, it said Mr Jo was known to be the son or son-in-law of a top-ranking North Korean official.

If confirmed, Mr Jo would join a slowly growing list of senior diplomats who have sought to flee the impoverished, oppressive North under the rule of Mr Kim Jong Un.

Mr Jo took up the acting envoy post in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest over North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile tests in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions. Mr Jo's stint began in May 2015 and was set to expire at the end of November, lawmaker Kim said.

South Korea's presidential Blue House said earlier yesterday it had no knowledge of the matter.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2019, with the headline 'N. Korean diplomat said to be missing in Italy, seeking asylum'. Print Edition | Subscribe