There has been no further word about North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy who went into hiding along with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month. Media reports indicated that Jo was under Italian government protection as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.
A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player. North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.
In this case, North Korea has publicly ignored Jo Song Gil’s possible defection and held back harsh criticism to avoid highlighting the vulnerability of its government as it tries to engage Washington and Seoul in negotiations.
“It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education,” Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who fled to South Korea in 2016, told The Associated Press.
Jo seemed comfortable moving around Italy. In March 2018, accompanied by another embassy official, Pak Myong Gil, he visited two factories in Italy’s northeastern Veneto region with an eye on eventual trade, according to La Tribuna di Treviso, a local daily.
Jo comes from a family of diplomats, with his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors.