Back To Top

[Newsmaker] Criticism mounts over revelation of NK diplomat’s defection

Jo Song-gil (AP-Yonhap)
Jo Song-gil (AP-Yonhap)
Criticism is mounting over the recent revelation of a high-ranking North Korean diplomat’s defection here by S. Korean media and lawmakers.

A UN official called on both Koreas to make efforts to help the safety of the defector’s remaining family in the North, while Seoul’s unification minister directed an investigation into how such sensitive information could have been published.

On Wednesday, Rep. Ha Tae-keung, a member of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee confirmed that Jo Song-gil, Pyongyang’s former acting ambassador to Italy, has been living in the South. It was a day after a TV station reported on the defection. Following Ha’s cue, other members of the Assembly also confirmed that Jo and his wife have settled in the South.

Jo vanished alongside his wife in November 2018, while stationed in Italy. His daughter, who was left behind, is believed to have been repatriated into the North after the parents’ disappearance. 

Although Jo was widely believed to have sought asylum somewhere, the revelation that he came to the South stoked fear for the safety of the daughter as well as others related to Jo.

“(Rep. Ha) has put Jo and his wife in great danger. His daughter has already been returned to north Korea when Jo and his wife ‘vanished’ and if she is still alive, I expect her to suffer even more,” David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday. 

On the same radio program, Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that it was likely that Jo’s defection could drastically alter the way North Korean diplomats are assigned to foreign countries.

“It may make it very difficult for North Korean diplomats and trade representatives to be sent overseas with their families, their children in particular,” he said, adding, “Family members who are already overseas may be recalled and sent back to North Korea.

“It is hard to understand why such information would be made public in South Korea. I am concerned about the personal safety of Mr. Jo and his wife,” he said.

Mindful of such worries, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesperson Marta Hurtado on Thursday called on both Koreas to make efforts to protect defectors’ remaining family.

On Thursday, Seoul’s Unification Minister Lee In-young said he had not expected the information on Jo to be made public. Officially, none of the South Korean authorities confirmed Jo was under their protection.

He said he will have ministry officials look into how it happened.