SEOUL, South Korea – A senior North Korean diplomat who disappeared from Italy in late 2018 has been secretly living in South Korea since July last year, a member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee and the South’s news media said on Wednesday.
The then 48-year-old diplomat Jo Song-gil was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Rome when he and his wife disappeared days before his planned return to Pyongyang in November 2018. His whereabouts had remained a mystery since then, leading to speculation that he had become one of the top diplomats to leave the totalitarian north.
The revelation about Mr Jo could further aggravate North-South relations, which have been spiraling downwards for months after the North blew up a jointly run liaison office and its troops killed a South Korean government official during a sea patrol.
Diplomatic overflows are a sensitive issue for Pyongyang as they are often interpreted in the outside world as a possible sign of frayed loyalty among the privileged class. They also point out that the South Korean authorities could obtain a wealth of information, particularly about smuggling and other illegal methods used by North Korean diplomats to earn foreign currency in violation of United Nations sanctions.
Ha Tae-keung, a member of the main opposition party in South Korea, said on Facebook on Wednesday that Mr. Jo arrived in the south 15 months ago and remained under government protection. Mr. Ha is a senior member of the Intelligence Committee of the National Assembly of the South and frequently briefs the media on closed parliamentary reports from the country’s National Intelligence Service.
Mr. Ha went public with his exposure hours after JTBC, a South Korean cable channel, reported that Mr. Jo had moved south. JTBC cited anonymous intelligence sources as confirmation of Mr. Jo’s defection, and other South Korean news outlets followed with similar stories.
The National Intelligence Service said Wednesday that it would “not confirm” the news or Mr. Ha’s testimony. The agency has often used such a stock phrase when trying to keep a prominent North Korean’s robbery a secret for fear of consequences in relations between Korea or to help protect the defector’s relatives in the north.
If his defection is confirmed, Mr. Jo will be the oldest North Korean government official to have fled south since Hang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of the North, moved south to Seoul through the Korean Embassy in Beijing that year 1997.
The last high-ranking North Korean diplomat to migrate south was Thae Yong-ho, a minister at the North Korean embassy in London, who traveled to Seoul with his wife and two sons in 2016.
Over the years some prominent North Koreans such as Mr. Hwang and Mr. Thae have led public lives after their defections to the south. But many others wanted to keep their raids a secret to protect their relatives in the north, and South Korean intelligence services have followed suit. When its diplomats are posted abroad, North Korea requires that they leave some of their children in the north to avoid defects.
Mr. Jo and his wife lived in Rome with their daughter. But when they fled, they couldn’t take the daughter with them. Italy later said the daughter had been taken home by North Korean authorities.
After Mr. Jo disappeared from Italy, Mr. Thae, who defected with his wife and all of his children, issued an open letter asking the acting ambassador to leave for South Korea. But after Mr. Jo’s daughter was taken north, Mr. Thae said it was extremely difficult for Mr. Jo to settle in the south.
“His daughter would face a harsher reprisal if he migrated to South Korea,” Thae told reporters last year. “He may have to be silent and keep his whereabouts a secret to protect his daughter.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Thae, now a lawmaker affiliated with the main opposition party in South Korea, issued a statement fearing that the news media disclosure of Mr. Jo’s whereabouts would further jeopardize the fate of Mr. Jo’s daughter in the north.
It remains unclear why Mr. Jo decided to flee North Korea. He was posted to Rome in May 2015. He was the acting ambassador for the north after Italy expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam in 2017 in protest against the north’s sixth nuclear test.
Mr. Jo’s disappearance was kept secret until a South Korean newspaper reported last year that he was seeking asylum in the west. South Korean lawmakers, later briefed by the National Intelligence Service, confirmed his disappearance. In August last year, the spy agency informed lawmakers in Seoul that Mr. Jo was safe “somewhere” outside Italy.
North Korea has not yet commented on Mr Jo’s case.
More than 30,000 North Koreans have moved to the south since the mid-1990s. The North usually calls them “human scum” and “traitors” or claims that they were kidnapped by the South Korean spy agency.
North Korea diplomats are usually children of elite families. Mr. Jo’s father and father-in-law had both been ambassadors, said Mr. Thae.