The daughter of a missing North Korean diplomat who is believed to be seeking asylum in Europe was separated from her parents and returned to Pyongyang, a prominent defector claimed this week.
Thae Yong Ho, who fled his post as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK in 2016, said Jo Song Gil, a former envoy to Rome, “wasn’t able to leave Italy with his children and North Korea has summoned his children back to North Korea.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Thae said a source in Pyongyang “told me that Jo’s daughter was in North Korea under state custody,” which he said explained Jo’s disappearance since he fled the Rome embassy late last year.
“Today, Jo cannot reveal where he is or engage in public activity because he must fear safety of his daughter,” Thae said. He added that while he had previously urged Jo to join him in Seoul, he would no longer advocate this, as “the level of punishment against family left behind of diplomats who defected to South Korea or to the US are very different.”
“I couldn’t keep up the demand that Jo come to South Korea since I found out that Jo’s daughter is in North Korea,” he said.
In a statement, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, “and that their daughter, having requested to return to her country to her grandparents, had returned there on November 14, 2018, accompanied by female staff from the Embassy.”
Last month, Thae and a number of other prominent North Korean defectors called on the Italian and South Korean governments to provide protection to Jo, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
There are around 30,000 North Korean defectors and refugees registered with the South Korean government.
While many defectors integrate into South Korean society and do not take part in politics, a substantial minority work to encourage and assist others to leave the North, and some are also involved in anti-Pyongyang activities and propaganda organizations, several of which were represented at the press conference Wednesday.
Such groups have been criticized in the past for undermining the peace process and antagonizing Pyongyang, particularly those which seek to transmit anti-regime propaganda into the North. For their part, many defector groups criticize the South Korean government for downplaying human rights concerns in its communications with North Korean officials.
Thae was the most high-profile defector in years when he fled the country’s embassy in the UK in 2016, seeking the protection of the South Korean government before moving to Seoul, where he has become a prominent critic of Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The former deputy ambassador has also urged other leading officials to abandon Pyongyang.
The costs for defecting to South Korea can be very high, with numerous reports of the left-behind family members of defectors being punished, and pressure put on them to convince their relatives to return to North Korea.
Kim Jong Un has maintained a tight grip on power in North Korea since he succeeded his father in 2011, defying the expectations of some analysts who expected him to be a weak leader controlled from the shadows by the country’s elite military and political figures.
A new report released this week, by the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC), a Seoul-based think tank founded by North Korean defectors, claimed Kim has executed or purged hundreds of officials since taking office, including members of the elite and military.
CNN could not independently confirm the contents of the report. Goings on within North Korea, particularly that involve the country’s political system, are notoriously opaque and difficult to read, even for experts. Officials previously reported to have been executed have turned up alive, and confident predictions about Kim’s policies have turned out to be false.
The report claimed hundreds of high-ranking officials have been executed since Kim came to power, while 38 officials have been purged. NKSC said its findings were based on interviews with 14 high-ranking defectors, five other defectors, and six North Korean officials on trips to China, the country’s closest ally.
Tight grip on power
In his New Year’s address last month, Kim said members of the ruling Worker’s Party should “should intensify the struggle to eradicate both serious and trivial instances of abuse of power, bureaucratism and corruption, which would wreak havoc on the harmonious whole of the Party and the masses and undermine the socialist system.”
Kim also hailed the “historic, first-ever (North Korea)-US summit meeting and talks brought about a dramatic turn in the bilateral relationship which was the most hostile on the earth.”
The North Korean leader will meet with the US President a second time next week, in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, as both Kim and Trump look to recapture the energy of their first meeting in Singapore, with negotiations on North Korean denuclearization and a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War stalling.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton will travel to South Korea this week for a round of consultations ahead of the summit with key officials in Seoul. Bolton has long been a skeptic of a diplomatic resolution to North Korea’s nuclear threat and has made clear that Kim has yet to take concrete steps toward denuclearization.
In Washington, those close to Trump are looking to temper his expectations, with some aides doubtful another summit can live up to the original, which was historic after decades of enmity between the two countries. A second meeting will never be quite the same, some have warned the President, hoping to temper his expectations.
CNN’s James Griffiths, Yoonjung Seo and Kevin Liptak contributed reporting.