Missing North Korean ambassador 'living in South'

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Image source, www.kimjongun.it
Image caption,
Jo Song-gil was thought to have been living in Rome with his wife and children before he disappeared

A North Korean diplomat who disappeared in Italy has defected and is living in South Korea, a lawmaker says.

Jo Song-gil, North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy who went missing in 2018, had been in the South since July 2019, South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee chief said.

If confirmed, Mr Jo would be the most senior defector since 1997.

However there is concern for his teenage daughter, who is said to have returned to the North.

Italy's foreign ministry says she was repatriated to the North in February 2019 at her own request after her parents went missing.

How did Jo Song-gil defect?

He disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in November 2018, just before his term as North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy was due to end.

Reports at the time said the diplomat - the son and son-in-law of high-ranking North Korean officials - was seeking asylum under the protection of Western governments.

Image source, Google Maps
Image caption,
Jo Song-gil was the top envoy at North Korea's embassy in Rome

On Tuesday an opposition South Korean lawmaker said on Facebook that Mr Jo was in the South with his wife and living under protection. On Thursday Jeon Hae-cheol, chairman of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, confirmed this was the case.

"Former acting Ambassador Jo came to South Korea voluntarily in July 2019," Mr Jeon said, adding: "He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea."

The country's intelligence agencies have not yet commented.

What about his daughter?

Little is known about her other than that she is a teenager.

Mr Jeon said Mr Jo had wanted his whereabouts kept secret. "He was concerned for his family remaining in North Korea," Mr Jeon said, in quotes carried by Yonhap news agency.

Another former North Korean diplomat, Thae Yong-ho - Pyongyang's former deputy ambassador to the UK who defected to South Korea in 2016 and is now a lawmaker there - said relatives of a defector could face retribution.

"Where a defected diplomat lives determines the levels of treatment or punishment to be given to his relatives left in the North.

"If he takes asylum in South Korea, he is defined as a traitor, apostate," Mr Thae said, adding: "And no one knows what penalties would be imposed on the family members of a traitor."

Another opposition lawmaker, Cho Tae-yong, who is also a former deputy national security advisor, accused the government of leaking information about Mr Jo and described it as an "act that completely lacked humanitarian considerations regarding his daughter".

However Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has said she was "surprised" at news of Mr Jo's whereabouts and shared concerns for his daughter.

North Korean diplomats stationed abroad often have to leave several family members behind in Pyongyang, a move expected to prevent them from defecting.

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