North Korea's acting ambassador to Rome is said to be seeking asylum

Seoul (AFP) - A North Korean diplomat in Italy said to be seeking asylum is from a “prestigious diplomatic family” with both his father and father-in-law having worked in Pyongyang’s foreign ministry, according to a senior defector.

Jo Song Gil, the North’s acting ambassador to Rome, went into hiding with his wife in November and is seeking asylum, according to Seoul’s intelligence authorities.

It would be the first high-profile defection of a North Korean diplomat since 2016 when the then deputy ambassador to London, Thae Yong Ho, switched sides to settle in Seoul.

Thae said Jo is the son of a late former diplomat, while his father-in-law served as ambassador to Thailand in the 1990s and once handled diplomatic protocol for the ruling Kim family at the foreign ministry.

“I worked with Jo in the same department at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry for so long but never imagined that he would seek asylum,” Thae told Seoul’s Channel A. “The news shocked me.

“I also worked for years with his father-in-law, a well-known, veteran diplomat in Pyongyang who also served as consul-general in Hong Kong in the 2000s,” Thae added in the interview late Thursday.

Jo’s wife graduated from Pyongyang’s prestigious medical school, with both families enjoying privileged lives as members of the North’s “wealthy, prestigious elite”, according to Thae. The couple have one child, he added.

South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo, which broke the news of the defection, reported that they went into hiding with their children, although South Korean intelligence did not confirm that during a briefing Thursday with lawmakers.

Jo, who is in his 40s and known to be fluent in French and Italian as well as English, came to Rome in May 2015.

He became temporary acting ambassador in October 2017, after Italy expelled the then ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest at a nuclear test Pyongyang staged a month earlier in violation of UN resolutions.

Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang, as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organization and North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages.

Jo has not contacted Seoul’s spy agency since he went into hiding, said Seoul lawmakers briefed by the intelligence authorities, suggesting he was seeking asylum in a third nation in the West.

The Kim dynasty has ruled the impoverished but nuclear-armed North for three generations with little tolerance for dissent and a pervasive personality cult.