North Korea’s ambassador to Italy has reportedly sought asylum for himself and his family while being stationed in Rome, South Korean media said on Thursday, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul.
According to the South Korean daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, Ambassador Jo Song Gil applied for asylum in December 2018 after being ordered to return to North Korea.
Italian officials were “agonizing” over what to do, the paper said, citing the unnamed source, who also added that they were “protecting him in a safe place.”
The entrance to the North Korea Embassy in Rome
Jo, Pyongyang’s top diplomat in Rome since October 2017, sought asylum in an unnamed European country, the paper reported.
The previous ambassador had been expelled from Rome following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in violation of UN resolutions
Reports not yet confirmed
South Korean officials could not immediately confirm the media reports. “We are looking into it,” a spokesperson from the country’s Ministry of Unification said, adding that intelligence agencies could also not yet confirm the report.
If the reports are confirmed, Jo would be the highest-level defection from North Korea by a diplomat since 2016, when Thae Yong Ho, then-deputy ambassador to the UK, sought asylum in South Korea.
North Korea’s Thae Yong Ho defected to South Korea in 2017 while he was stationed in London
Many North Korean diplomats must leave family members behind when they go overseas to prevent them from defecting while working abroad.
Jo brought his wife and family with him when he came to Rome in May 2015, which suggests that he may come from a privileged family, the Korean newspaper said.
Jo is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime,” it added.
North Korea is ruled by Kim Jong Un, a member of the Kim family dynasty that has controlled the country for three decades, quashing dissent and building up nuclear armaments in violation of international resolutions. Kim has also been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses.
cmb/kms (dpa, AFP)
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