ROME — North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has gone into hiding along with his wife, according to a South Korean lawmaker, raising the possibility of a defection of a senior North Korean official.
The news came from South Korea’s spy agency, which briefed lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday on the status of North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil. It said he went into hiding with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month.
A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim did not say whether the spy agency revealed anything about Jo’s current whereabouts or whether he had plans to defect to South Korea.
Kim said the NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo.
According to Kim, the NIS official said Jo and his wife left the official residence in early November, weeks before his term was to end. Kim said he couldn’t confirm if the NIS official revealed whether Jo and his wife were accompanied by any children. The NIS earlier said it couldn’t confirm a South Korean media report that Jo was under Italian government protection as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.
North Korea has not yet commented on Jo’s status.
An official with the Italian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Jo hadn’t requested asylum from Italy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with standard practice, also said Jo no longer held diplomatic status in Italy, presumably since his assignment had ended.
Without citing any sources, Italian daily La Repubblica raised the possibility that while the Foreign Ministry was saying Jo hadn’t sought asylum from Italy, that didn’t rule out that the North Korean might have turned to other offices, for “assistance from Italy in order not to return to his country.”