North Korea’s missing ambassador may be most senior defector since 1997

Jo Song-gil

North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, who disappeared without trace in 2018, is believed to have resettled in South Korea. If true, this would make him the most senior official to defect from North Korea in over 20 years. Jo Song-gil (pictured), 48, a career diplomat who is fluent in Italian, French and English, presented his diplomatic credentials to the Italian government in May of 2015. In October 2017 he became his country’s acting ambassador, after Italian authorities expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam from the country.

Jo comes from a high-ranking family of North Korean officials with a long history in the ruling Workers Party of Korea. His father is a retired diplomat and his wife’s father, Lee Do-seop, spent many years as Pyongyang’s envoy in Hong Kong and Thailand. It is believed that Jo had been permitted to take his wife and children with him to Rome, a privilege that is bestowed only to the most loyal of North Korean government official. But in November of 2018, Jo suddenly vanished along with his wife and children. The disappearance occurred a month before Jo was to be replaced as acting ambassador to Italy. At the time of Jo’s disappearance, South Korean media reported that the diplomat and his family “were in a safe place” under the protection of the Italian government, while they negotiated their defection. However, this was never confirmed.

On Tuesday of this week, a social media post by a South Korean parliamentarian claimed that Jo and his wife were living in South Korea under the protection of the government, but provided no evidence of this claim. Yesterday, this information appeared to be confirmed by another South Korean parliamentarian, Jeon Hae-cheol, who chairs the Intelligence Committee of the Korean National Assembly (South Korea’s parliament). Jeon said the North Korean diplomat had been living in South Korea since the summer of 2019. He added that Jo had arrived in South Korea after having “repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea”.

This information has not been officially verified by the South Korean government. Additionally, the South Korean National Intelligence Service has not issued a statement on the matter. If this information is confirmed, it would make Jo the most senior North Korean official to have defected since 1997. That year saw the sensational defection of Hwang Jang-yop, Pyongyang’s primary theorist and the ideological architect of juche, the philosophy of self-reliance, which is North Korea’s officially sanctioned state dogma. Until his death from heart failure in April 2010, Hwang had been living in the South with around-the-clock security protection.

Some reports have suggested that Jo’s teenage daughter refused to follow her parents to South Korea and that she was “repatriated” to North Korea in February of 2019, at her own request. Her whereabouts remain unknown.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 October 2020 | Permalink

North Korean ambassador to Rome missing since November, says Seoul

Jo Song-gilThe acting ambassador of North Korea to Italy has been missing for two months and there are reports that he may be under the protection of a Western country. Jo Song-gil (pictured), 48, a career diplomat who is fluent in Italian, French and English, presented his diplomatic credentials to the Italian government in May of 2015. In October 2017, he became his country’s acting ambassador after Italian authorities expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam from the country. The expulsion came in response to North Korea’s nuclear test in September of that year, when Pyongyang announced the detonation of a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Jo is believed to be from a high-ranking family of officials and diplomats with a long history in the ruling Workers Party of Korea. His father is a retired diplomat and his wife’s father, Lee Do-seop, spent many years as Pyongyang’s envoy in Hong Kong and Thailand. It is believed that Jo had been permitted to take his wife and children with him to Rome, a privilege that is bestowed only to the most loyal of North Korean government official. Sources in the Italian government were quoted by British media on Thursday saying that Pyongyang had notified Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in October that Jo would be replaced in December. On Thursday, however, Kim Min-ki, a South Korean member of parliament, told reporters in Seoul that Jo had been missing since November. Kim added that he and a group of other parliamentarians had been briefed on the mater by officials from the National Intelligence Service, South Korean’s primary external intelligence agency. He went on to say that Jo’s wife and children were believed to have vanished with him and that South Korean authorities had not made contact with them since their disappearance.

Meanwhile, South Korean press reports stated on Thursday that Jo and his family “were in a safe place” under the protection of the Italian government, while they negotiated their defection. But Italian officials told the BBC that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had “no record of an asylum request made by Jo” or other members of his family. Citing an anonymous “diplomatic source”, the Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo said that the former ambassador and his wife were in the process of negotiating their defection to a Western country, along with an offer of political asylum. The paper did not name the country, but said that the missing family did not intend to remain in Italy. IntelNews regulars will recall the last defection of a senior North Korean diplomat in August 2016, when Thae Yong-ho, second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in London, defected to South Korea with his family.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 January 2019 | Permalink