North Korean ambassador who vanished in Italy defected to South Korea, lawmakers say

 Jo Song Gil, North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, at a cultural event near Treviso
Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy (center), attends a cultural event near Treviso, in northern Italy.
(Parish of Farra di Soligo)

A senior North Korean diplomat who vanished in Italy in late 2018 is living in South Korea under government protection, South Korean lawmakers said Wednesday.

If confirmed, the disclosure would make Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Italy, the highest-level North Korean official to defect to the south since the 1997 arrival of Hwang Jang-yop, a senior official in Pyongyang who once tutored former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the father of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Un.

South Korea’s spy agency had earlier told lawmakers that Jo left his official residence in Rome with his wife in November 2018 and was under protection at an unspecified location outside Italy.


Lawmaker Ha Tae-keung, a member of the intelligence committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, wrote on Facebook that Jo arrived in the south in July 2019 and is under the protection of the central government.

Ha said he was confirming Jo’s arrival on behalf of the committee to prevent a media frenzy after a South Korean TV station reported Jo’s defection Tuesday evening. Ha said the committee decided not to provide further details about Jo for his safety.

Jeon Hae-cheol, the committee’s chairman, told reporters later Wednesday that Jo came to South Korea voluntarily after expressing wishes to resettle there several times. Jeon said Jo didn’t want his arrival to be publicized because of concerns about relatives in North Korea, according to Jeon’s office.

The North Korean Embassy in Madrid was a soft target.

May 15, 2019

Neither lawmaker detailed how he obtained the information. It’s likely that they were briefed about Jo by the National Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agency, as committee members routinely meet NIS officers for discussions on North Korea.

The NIS said it was checking reports about Jo’s arrival. South Korea’s foreign and unification ministries said they couldn’t confirm the reports.

Before Jo, Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, was the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. He came to Seoul in 2016 and was elected to the National Assemby this year. Thae said he decided to defect because he didn’t want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and because he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un.


Thae issued a statement urging media outlets to refrain from exposing too much about Jo, citing worries about a possible reprisal against the former envoy’s daughter in North Korea.

The highest-level North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea said Wednesday that he decided to flee last year because he didn’t want his children to live miserable lives in the North.

Jan. 25, 2017

The reason for Jo’s departure from his Rome residence isn’t known. North Korea’s state media haven’t mentioned his possible defection.

About 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the late 1990s to avoid political suppression and poverty in the North.