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09/10/2020 | North Korea’s missing ambassador may be most senior defector since 1997

Joseph Fitsanakis

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.

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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