Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Italy who disappeared in late 2018, is confirmed to be living in South Korea. He is quite possibly the top-ranked defector living in the county.
Local news media reported that Jo’s wife had asked the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for permission to return to the North, out of concern for the safety of her teenage daughter and her family. The NIS approved the request, but also made clear that “Jo and his wife voluntarily defected to the South.”
Free Joseon, a group opposed to the Kim Jong Un regime that claims to represent an alternative provisional government for North Korea, helped Jo and his wife find their way to South Korea. (The U.S.-based group, also called “Cheollima Civil Defense,” previously helped Kim Han Sol keep safe from his potential North Korean adversaries after his father, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in 2017. In a very murky incident, Free Joseon was also responsible for raiding the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.)
Jo hails from an elite family of orthodox diplomats. His father and father-in-law both served as ambassadors, according to South Korean news reports – the former as ambassador to Congo and Togo, and the latter as ambassador to Thailand and consul general to Hong Kong.
Thae Yong Ho who was deputy ambassador to London defected in 2016, and after arriving in the South became an outspoken critic of the North. In April, he was elected as a lawmaker with the conservative opposition. Previously, Thae had close relationships to the ultra-elite, having appeared in the public with Kim Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un’s brother, when the latter visited London, where he attended an Eric Clapton concert and visited guitar shops.
According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, six senior diplomats have defected to the South since the early 1990s. “As a member of the North Korean elite – by birth, education, and profession – Jo is privy to information that could be damaging to a totalitarian system. If more become outspoken like Thae Yong-ho, they could encourage further defections and undermine the Kim regime,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
So why do diplomats – part of a tiny minority of privileged North Koreans who are trusted to travel and even live overseas – defect from a country where they live at the top of the songbun system?
“The North Korean elite is not optimistic about the future of the North,” said Jo Dong-joon, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul University. “Since the late 1980s, the North Korean elite had already lost confidence.”
“Some do it for their family (especially children), some fear repression from the regime for one reason or another, and some probably very genuinely learn to detest the North Korean system and prefer to take their chances in a place more free,” said Mason Richey, an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, in an email interview.