A top North Korean diplomat who went missing in Italy two years ago is now living in South Korea, making him one of the regime’s most high profile officials to defect in decades.
Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared in November 2018 after leaving the North Korean embassy in Rome where Jo was employed as acting-ambassador.
For almost two years, his whereabouts have been unknown – but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had defected to South Korea in 2019.
“There had been numerous requests for information, so here it is. It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.
Jo is the highest-profile government official to defect from the totalitarian regime since Thae Yong-Ho, former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. North Korea has yet to comment publicly on the news of Jo’s defection.
Delay in making defection public
Jo disappeared in November 2018, shortly before his term as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy was set to expire, a spokesperson for South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki told CNN last year.
Italy has been without a North Korean ambassador since Pyongyang’s former envoy was expelled in 2017, following the country’s sixth nuclear test. Jo joined the embassy in May 2015 as the third secretary, according to South Korean lawmakers.
In a statement after the diplomat fled, 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, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female staff from the North Korean embassy after requesting to be reunited with her grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee chair Jeon Hae-cheol told CNN that the South Korean government didn’t make Jo’s defection public for more than a year out of concern for his family’s safety. Jo had voluntarily expressed his desire to come to South Korea, the spokesperson said.
Thae, the former UK-based diplomat, criticized the press for exposing news about Jo without his consent.
“For diplomats who have family members living in North Korea, to reveal their news (of defection) is a sensitive matter,” he said in a statement. “That is why other former North Korean diplomats are living in South Korea without revealing their identity and the South Korean government does not reveal it either.”
Thae, who is now a lawmaker in South Korea, urged journalists in the country “not to focus on (Jo) much out of consideration of his daughter in the North.”
Life for defectors
Defectors say North Korea routinely punishes entire families for the crimes of an individual, especially those found guilty of anti-regime activity. Those who have left North Korea say their relatives are often sent to prison camps or used by the regime as propaganda tools.
Thae defected with his wife and two sons, who were with him in London. However, he said most North Korean diplomats posted abroad do not travel with their families.
“The children are used by Kim Jong Un as kind of hostage,” Thae told CNN in 2017, shortly after his own defection. “Kim Jong Un abuses even the love between parents and children.”
Although there are no official statistics showing exactly how many North Koreans have fled their country, South Korea says it has welcomed more than 32,000 defectors since 1998. North Korea is home to about 25 million people.
Defectors often face a difficult life even after they have made it to South Korea. Although they are given welfare support, many struggle to find employment.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and James Griffiths contributed to this report.