North Korean diplomat in Italy ‘in hiding’: South’s spy agency

Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang, as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organization and North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages. (Shutterstock/File)
Updated 03 January 2019
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North Korean diplomat in Italy ‘in hiding’: South’s spy agency

  • Italian authorities were “agonizing” over what to do, the official was cited as saying
  • The spy agency briefing to lawmakers came after South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo daily reported that Jo had sought asylum in an unidentified Western country with his family

SEOUL: North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has gone into hiding, a Seoul lawmaker told reporters after a closed-door meeting with South Korean intelligence officials on Thursday.
“Acting ambassador Jo Song Gil’s term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November” with his wife, Kim Min-ki told reporters.
The spy agency briefing to lawmakers came after South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo daily reported that Jo had sought asylum in an unidentified Western country with his family.
“He sought asylum early last month,” the JoongAng quoted a diplomatic source in Seoul as saying.
Italian authorities were “agonizing” over what to do, the official was cited as saying, but added that they were “protecting him in a safe place.”
The last senior North Korean diplomat to defect was Thae Yong Ho, who abandoned his post as deputy ambassador in London in 2016.
Jo, 48, has been acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled the then ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest at a nuclear test by the North a month earlier in violation of UN resolutions.
Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang, as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organization and North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages.
Jo is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime,” the JoongAng cited an unnamed North Korea expert as saying.
Most North Korean diplomats serving overseas are normally required to leave several family members — typically children — behind in Pyongyang to prevent their defection while working abroad.
Jo however came to Rome in May 2015 with his wife and children, suggesting he may be from a privileged family, the JoongAng said, adding the reason for his defection bid was still unclear.
At the time of his own defection Thae, the former deputy ambassador to London, said he had switched sides partly to give his three children a better future after being ordered to return to the North.
The Kim dynasty has ruled the impoverished but nuclear-armed state for three generations with little tolerance for dissent, and the regime stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.


North Korean envoy en route to Hanoi ahead of Trump-Kim summit: report

Updated 2 min 42 sec ago
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North Korean envoy en route to Hanoi ahead of Trump-Kim summit: report

  • Kim Hyok Chol arrived in Beijing Tuesday morning and was expected to board a plane bound for Hanoi later in the day
  • Kim Hyok Chol and his US counterpart Stephen Biegun were engaged in three days of talks in Pyongyang earlier this month
SEOUL: The North Korean special representative for the US arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, apparently en route to Vietnam to meet his Washington counterpart ahead of a second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said.
Kim Hyok Chol arrived in the Chinese capital at around 10 am (0200 GMT) and was expected to board a plane bound for Hanoi later in the day.
His trip comes three days after Kim Jong Un’s de-facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, landed in Hanoi to discuss protocol and security matters with the US team ahead of the summit on February 27-28.
Kim Hyok Chol and his US counterpart Stephen Biegun were engaged in three days of talks in Pyongyang earlier this month, exploring each side’s positions on denuclearization ahead of the much-anticipated meeting.
Biegun said they had been productive, but more dialogue was needed.
“We have some hard work to do with the DPRK between now and then,” Biegun said, adding that he was “confident that if both sides stay committed, we can make real progress here.”
The US State Department said talks during Biegun’s trip explored Trump and Kim Jong Un’s “commitments of complete denuclearization, transforming US-DPRK relations and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Specifically, discussions on declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War could have been on the table, with Biegun last month saying Trump was “ready to end this war.”
Alex Wong, US deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, is already in the Vietnamese capital preparing for the summit.
Biegun is expected to fly there soon from Washington to resume talks with Kim Hyok Chol.
Experts say tangible progress on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons will be needed for the second summit if it is to avoid being dismissed as “reality TV.”