A senior North Korean diplomat who vanished in Italy in late 2018 is living in South Korea under government protection, according to a legislator in Seoul.
If confirmed, Jo Song Gil, the former ambassador to Italy, would be the highest-level North Korean official to defect to its rival since the 1997 arrival of Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers’ Party official who once tutored leader Kim Jong Un’s father, late leader Kim Jong Il.
South Korea’s spy agency earlier told legislators that Mr Jo left his official residence in Rome with his wife in November 2018 and was under protection at an unspecified location outside the European country.
Ha Tae-keung, who sits on the intelligence committee of South Korea’s National Assembly, wrote on Facebook that Mr Jo arrived in South Korea last year and is under the protection of the government.
Mr Ha said he was confirming Mr Jo’s arrival on behalf of the committee to prevent a media frenzy, after a South Korean TV station reported about his defection on Tuesday evening.
The legislator said the committee decided not to provide further details about Mr Jo for his safety.
Mr Ha did not say how he obtained the information. It is likely that he was briefed 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 Mr Jo’s arrival. South Korea’s foreign and unification ministries said they could not confirm the reports.
Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean embassy in London, was previously the most senior North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea. He went to Seoul in 2016 and was elected to parliament this year.
He said he decided to defect because did not want his children to live “miserable” lives in North Korea and he was disappointed with Kim Jong Un.
Mr Thae issued a statement urging media outlets to refrain from exposing too much about Mr Jo, citing worries about possible reprisals on his daughter left in North Korea.
The motive for his departure from his Rome residence is not known, and North Korea’s state media have not mentioned his possible defection.
About 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since the late 1990s to avoid political suppression and poverty.