North Korean Diplomat, Missing Since 2018, Is in Seoul, Lawmaker Says

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SEOUL, South Korea — A senior North Korean diplomat who disappeared from Italy in late 2018 has been residing secretly in South Korea since July of final yr, a member of the intelligence committee of the South Korean Parliament and the South’s information media stated on Wednesday.

The diplomat, Jo Song-gil, then 48, was North Korea’s appearing ambassador to Rome when he and his spouse disappeared days earlier than he was scheduled to return home to Pyongyang in November 2018. His whereabouts had since remained a thriller, prompting hypothesis that he had turn out to be one of the senior diplomats to abandon the totalitarian North.

The revelation about Mr. Jo may additional worsen North-South relations, which have been in a downward spiral for months after the North blew up a collectively run liaison workplace and its troops killed a South Korean authorities official throughout a sea patrol.

Diplomats’ defections are a delicate problem for Pyongyang as a result of they’re usually interpreted within the outdoors world as a attainable signal of fraying loyalty among the many privileged​ class. They additionally elevate the likelihood that the South Korean autho​rities may glean a wealth of knowledge, particularly about smuggling and different illicit methods during which North Korean diplomats earn international foreign money in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Ha Tae-keung, a member of the principle opposition celebration in South Korea, stated on Facebook on Wednesday that Mr. Jo had arrived within the South 15 months in the past and remained underneath authorities safety. ​Mr. Ha is a senior member of the intelligence committee of the South’s National Assembly​ and infrequently briefs the information media ​on closed-door parliamentary reviews from the nation’s National Intelligence Service.

Mr. Ha went public along with his revelation hours after JTBC, a South Korean cable channel, reported that Mr. Jo had defected to ​the ​South. JTBC cited nameless intelligence sources as confirming Mr. Jo’s defection, and different South Korean information retailers adopted up with related tales​.

The National Intelligence Service stated on Wednesday that it “will not confirm” the information report​s​ or Mr. Ha’s assertion. The company has ​usually used such a inventory phrase when it needs to maintain secret the defection of a distinguished North Korean for concern of penalties in inter-Korean relations ​or to assist shield the defector’s kin within the North.

If his defection is confirmed, Mr. Jo would be the most senior North Korean authorities official to flee to the South since H​w​ang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, defected to Seoul via the South Korean Embassy in Beijing in 1997. ​

The final senior North Korean diplomat to defect to the South was Thae Yong-ho, a minister within the North Korean Embassy in London, ​who​ f​led to Seoul in 2016 along with his spouse and two sons.

Over the years, some distinguished North Koreans like Mr. Hwang and Mr. Thae have led public lives after their defections to the South. But many others have needed to maintain their defections secret to guard their kin within the North, and the South Korean intelligence authorities have abided by their needs. When its diplomats are posted overseas, North Korea requires them to go away a few of their kids within the North to be able to discourage defections.

Mr. Jo and his spouse lived with their daughter in Rome. But after they escaped, they might not deliver the daughter with them. Italy later stated that the daughter had been taken home by the North Korean authorities.

After Mr. Jo disappeared from Italy, Mr. Thae, who defected along with his spouse and all his kids, issued an open letter interesting to the appearing ambassador to defect to South Korea. But after Mr. Jo’s daughter was taken to the North, Mr. Thae stated it will be extraordinarily troublesome for Mr. Jo to settle within the South.

“His daughter would suffer a more severe retaliatory punishment if he chose to defect to South Korea” relatively than to different nations, Mr. Thae instructed reporters final yr. “He may have to remain silent and keep his whereabouts secret to protect his daughter.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Thae, now a lawmaker affiliated with the principle opposition celebration in South Korea, issued an announcement worrying that the revelation within the information media of Mr. Jo’s whereabouts would additional jeopardize the destiny of Mr. Jo’s daughter within the North.

It stays unclear precisely why Mr. Jo determined to flee North Korea. He was posted in Rome in May 2015. He served because the North’s appearing ambassador after Italy expelled the ambassador, Mun Jong-nam, in 2017 in protest​ over the North’s sixth nuclear take a look at​.

Mr. Jo’s disappearance was saved secret till a South Korean newspaper reported final yr that he was looking for asylum within the West. South Korean lawmakers later briefed by the National Intelligence Service confirmed his disappearance. ​In August of final yr, the spy company instructed lawmakers in ​Seoul that Mr. Jo was secure “somewhere” outdoors Italy.

North Korea has but to touch upon Mr. Jo’s case.

​More than 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South for the reason that mid-1990s. The North usually calls them “human scum” and “traitors,” or claims that they have been kidnapped by the South Korean spy company.

North Korea diplomats are normally kids of elite households. ​ Mr. Jo’s father and father-in-law each had been ambassadors, Mr. Thae stated.

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