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Missing North Korean diplomat settled in South in July 2019

Jo Song-gil (AP-Yonhap)
Jo Song-gil (AP-Yonhap)

A former North Korean diplomat, who disappeared in late 2018, came to South Korea in July last year and has lived here ever since, lawmakers revealed Wednesday. 

Ruling Democratic Party Rep. Jeon Hae-cheol, who chairs the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, said Jo Song-gil, the North’s former acting Ambassador to Italy, came to South Korea voluntarily in July 2019.

“Jo had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to the South,” he told reporters.

News of Jo’s defection surfaced Tuesday, following a report by local broadcaster JTBC that Jo, rumored to have sought asylum in a third country, has settled in the South along with his wife, citing intelligence sources.

Another lawmaker Rep. Ha Tae-keung of the main opposition People Power Party, who also sits on the intelligence committee, also confirmed the report, saying Jo entered here last year and is under the protection of government authorities.

While the lawmakers declined to give more specifics, it is likely that they were debriefed by the National Intelligence Service, as intelligence committee members meet with the spy agency officials in closed-door meetings. 

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha during a parliamentary audit Wednesday said the ministry had played its respective role in the process of Jo’s defection, but declined to comment on the details.

Jo is one of the highest-ranking officials from Pyongyang to settle here, after the late Hwang Jang-yop, former secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, who defected to the South in 1997. He is also the first ambassador-level official to defect here since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

On Nov. 10, 2018, while serving in Rome as the North’s acting ambassador, Jo disappeared without notice together with his wife days before his term was to expire and he was scheduled to return to Pyongyang. When Jo fled, he left his daughter in Rome, who was later repatriated to the North, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.

Since then, his whereabouts had been unknown, until media outlets reported in January 2019 that he was seeking asylum in a Western country and was under protection of Italian authorities.

In August 2019, the spy agency here said that Jo was being protected “somewhere” outside of Italy, without revealing where, at a time when he is presumed to have already arrived in the South.

The South appears to have kept mum on the defection, considering the safety of Jo’s daughter who is believed to be in Pyongyang, and on the risk of hurting diplomatic efforts between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang.

Lawmaker Jeon said Jo’s defection was kept secret as the former diplomat did not want his arrival to Seoul to be revealed.

“He was concerned for his family remaining in North Korea,” he said.

When asked whether Seoul and Pyongyang were in contact over Jo’s defection, Jeon declined to confirm.

Pyongyang has yet to publicly comment on Jo’s defection. 

Rep. Thae Yong-ho of the main opposition party, who is another senior diplomat who defected here, issued a statement Wednesday, raising concern that the revelation of Jo’s defection could further jeopardize his daughter’s safety in the North. Thae served as the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain before defecting to the South in 2016 with his family.

Saying Jo’s daughter was forcibly taken back to the North, she, along with other remaining family members in the North, could face harsh punishment in the country if it was revealed that the diplomat defected to the South, noting the regime considers such a defector as a “turncoat” and “traitor.”
 
The North is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among diplomats and its elite classes, fearing it could undermine the reclusive regime, as well as on the possibility of leaking sensitive state information to the US and South Korea.

It remains unclear why Jo decided to flee Rome and settle in the South. He served as the North’s acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong-nam in October 2017 following the North’s sixth nuclear test in September that year.

Jo is believed to be among an elite class in the North, with both his father and father in-law having been ambassadors.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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