North Korea’s ambassador to Malta and Italy has defected from his official role and is currently seeking political asylum in a Western country, a South Korean lawmaker has confirmed.
Jo Song-gil, 48, who took up his post in Rome about a year ago, has now gone into hiding as his request is being processed. He is the latest high-profile defection to come from Pyongyang, after former diplomat Thae Yong-ho left his deputy ambassador post in London in 2016.
“Acting ambassador Jo Song-gil’s term was ending in late November last year, and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November” with his wife, said South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki. He was unable to confirm the current location of Song-gil.
Pictured: Jo Song-gil, left
Song-gil applied for asylum to an unnamed Western country early in December 2018 after being ordered to return to the Hermit Kingdom
North Korean diplomats sent abroad are often forced to leave family members behind, a measure meant to prevent them from abandoning their posts while abroad.
However, Song-gil brought his wife and family with him to Rome, indicating that he might come from an elite family in North Korea. The South Korean newspaper JoongAng reported that he is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime”.
Italian authorities are reportedly “agonising” over the decision, with one official saying that they were “protecting him in a safe place” until way forward is found.
North Korea is currently ruled by Kim-Jong Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. He is the latest member of the Kim dynasty to control the Asian country at the head of a regime accused of abusing human rights and impoverishing the country.