North Korea's top diplomat in Italy has been missing for weeks, a South Korean lawmaker said, raising suspicions that he may have defected.
Jo Song Gil, Pyongyang's chargé d'affaires in Rome, disappeared along with his wife in early November, a spokesperson for Kim Min-ki told CNN, following a briefing the lawmaker received from South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) Thursday. Jo's term was set to expire later that month, according to the spokesperson.
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Italy has been without a North Korean ambassador since Pyongyang's former envoy was expelled in 2017, following the country's sixth nuclear test. Jo joined the embassy in May 2015 as the third secretary, Kim said.
A prominent South Korean newspaper reported Thursday that Jo was seeking asylum in the West, citing anonymous South Korean government sources. A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his office had no information about the case. The NIS did not confirm if he defected.
Italy's Foreign Ministry was not aware of an asylum request, a spokesman told CNN. Instead, the ministry was only told in late November that Jo would no longer be "in charge of business," it said.
If Jo did defect, he would be the highest-profile North Korean government official known to do so since 2016, when Thae Yong-ho, Pyongyang's former deputy envoy to the United Kingdom, abandoned his post.
Thae was posted abroad with his immediate family when he defected from North Korea's British embassy in 2016. However, most North Korean diplomats posted abroad do not travel with their families, and it's unclear if Jo and his wife had children with them in Italy.
"The children are used by Kim Jong Un as kind of hostage," Thae told CNN in 2017, shortly after his own defection. "Kim Jong Un abuses even the love between parents and children."
Thae described his life as one of a "modern slave" for the regime, and made his decision to defect after years of exposure to the Western world. He said made wanted to give his sons the opportunity lead a different life, despite the dangers he could face. He now lives in South Korea under heavy security.
Defectors say North Korea routinely punishes entire families for the crimes of an individual, especially those found guilty of anti-regime activity. Those who have left North Korea say defectors' relatives are often sent to prison camps or used by the regime as propaganda tools.
CNN spoke with Thae's sister and brother inside North Korea in 2017, both of whom disowned him and claimed no one in the family had been punished for his crime.
The pair said the interview, organized by the government, was done voluntarily.