A high-ranking North Korean official has disappeared into thin air in Rome, according to South Korean intelligence reports. Jo Song Gil (his name is also transliterated as “Cheo Seong-Gil) was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy and was living in Rome with his wife; his term as the North Korean ambassador was set to end in November. But on January 3, members of the Italian government revealed that Jo and his wife had quietly left their official residence and had vanished, in what seems to be a high-profile defection. The couple apparently left the North Korean compound in early November and has not been officially seen or heard from since.
Members of the South Korean government told reporters that Jo had gone into hiding and was being protected by the Italian government.
“He escaped the diplomatic compound in early November and…went into hiding,” Kim Min-ki— a lawmaker on the South Korean legislature’s intelligence committee, told reporters on Thursday. A spokesperson from the Italian foreign ministry told the Associated Press that Jo hadn’t requested asylum.
North Korean officials typically lead very tightly controlled lives when they are posted abroad; they are assigned to live in official residences and are surrounded by guards. Many believe that the protections are in place to keep them from defecting from their repressive regime. Defections from the impoverished country are rare, in part because the North Korean government also punishes the families of defectors and smears their reputation, calling them “human scum”. The last senior North Korean diplomat who was known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, who served as a minister at the North Korean Embassy in London. Thae fled to South Korea in 2016.
Jo Served for Over a Decade In North Korea’s European Bureau
Thae Yong Ho, the North Korean official who defected back in 2016, told South Korean television that he had worked alongside of Jo Song Gil for over a decade. The two men were members of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Europe bureau. Thae said that Jo came from a family of diplomats and that both his father and his father-in-law had served as ambassadors for the North Korean government.
Thae also said that, when he last saw Jo back in 2013, Jo had a child. Intelligence reports have not made it clear whether Jo and his wife had a child with them when they left the North Korean compound in Rome in November.
Thae told the AP that he had defected from his post in London because he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing his children grow up under North Korea’s repressive regime. And Thae speculated that Jo may have defected for the same reason: “It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education,” he told the AP.