The acting ambassador of North Korea to Italy has been missing for two months and there are reports that he may be under the protection of a Western country. Jo Song-gil (pictured), 48, a career diplomat who is fluent in Italian, French and English, presented his diplomatic credentials to the Italian government in May of 2015. In October 2017, he became his country’s acting ambassador after Italian authorities expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam from the country. The expulsion came in response to North Korea’s nuclear test in September of that year, when Pyongyang announced the detonation of a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Jo is believed to be from a high-ranking family of officials and diplomats with a long history in the ruling Workers Party of Korea. His father is a retired diplomat and his wife’s father, Lee Do-seop, spent many years as Pyongyang’s envoy in Hong Kong and Thailand. It is believed that Jo had been permitted to take his wife and children with him to Rome, a privilege that is bestowed only to the most loyal of North Korean government official. Sources in the Italian government were quoted by British media on Thursday saying that Pyongyang had notified Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in October that Jo would be replaced in December.
On Thursday, however, Kim Min-ki, a South Korean member of parliament, told reporters in Seoul that Jo had been missing since November. Kim added that he and a group of other parliamentarians had been briefed on the mater by officials from the National Intelligence Service, South Korean’s primary external intelligence agency. He went on to say that Jo’s wife and children were believed to have vanished with him and that South Korean authorities had not made contact with them since their disappearance.
Meanwhile, South Korean press reports stated on Thursday that Jo and his family “were in a safe place” under the protection of the Italian government, while they negotiated their defection. But Italian officials told the BBC that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had “no record of an asylum request made by Jo” or other members of his family. Citing an anonymous “diplomatic source”, the Seoul-based JoongAng Ilbo said that the former ambassador and his wife were in the process of negotiating their defection to a Western country, along with an offer of political asylum. The paper did not name the country, but said that the missing family did not intend to remain in Italy.