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.


Major emperor penguin breeding ground gone barren since 2016

Updated 2 min 14 sec ago
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Major emperor penguin breeding ground gone barren since 2016

  • Usually 15,000 to 24,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins flock yearly to a breeding site at Halley Bay
  • The place is considered a safe place that should stay cold this century despite global warming

WASHINGTON: For the past three years, virtually nothing has hatched at Antarctica’s second biggest breeding grounds for emperor penguins and the start of this year is looking just as bleak, a new study found.
Usually 15,000 to 24,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins flock yearly to a breeding site at Halley Bay, considered a safe place that should stay cold this century despite global warming. But almost none have been there since 2016, according to a study in Wednesday’s Antarctic Science.
The breeding pair population has increased significantly at a nearby breeding ground, but the study’s author said it is nowhere near the amount missing at Halley Bay.
“We’ve never seen a breeding failure on a scale like this in 60 years,” said study author Phil Trathan, head of conservation biology at the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s unusual to have a complete breeding failure in such a big colony.”
Normally about 8% of the world’s emperor penguin population breeds at Halley Bay, Trathan said.
Black-and-white with yellow ears and breasts, emperor penguins are the largest penguin species, weighing up to 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and living about 20 years. Pairs breed in the harshest winter conditions with the male incubating their egg.
Scientists blame the sharp decline on climate and weather conditions that break apart the “fast ice” — sea ice that’s connected to the land — where the emperor penguins stay to breed. They incubate their eggs and tend to their chicks — one per pair — on ice. After breeding and tending to the chicks, the penguins move to open sea.
In 2016 and 2017, there was no breeding in Halley Bay and last year there was just a bit, the study found.
The nearby Dawson-Lambton breeding area, which had been home to a couple thousand pairs, increased to 11,117 pairs in 2017 and 14,612 pairs in 2018, the study said.
While that’s encouraging, it doesn’t make up for all that was lost at Halley Bay, Trathan said. “Not everybody has gone to Dawson Lambton yet,” he said.
What’s troubling isn’t that part of the colony has moved to Dawson-Lambton, it is that scientists thought of Halley Bay as a climate change refuge in one of the coldest areas of the continent “where in the future you expect to always have emperors,” Trathan said.
David Ainley, a marine ecologist and penguin expert at the consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates, worried that some people will be more alarmed than they need to be because many of the penguins didn’t disappear, but just moved. While not as scary as it may sound initially, with climate change “long term, it’s another question as alternate breeding sites likely will become harder to find,” said Ainley, who was not part of the study.
The study makes sense, and sometimes dramatic environmental change can cause a breeding failure like this, said Stephanie Jenouvrier, a penguin expert at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who wasn’t part of the study.
Trathan said a super strong El Nino — a natural cyclical warming of the central Pacific that changes weather worldwide — melted sea ice more than usual and exposed the fast ice to wind and waves, making the breeding home less stable. He said it’s not possible to say yet if human-caused warming — from fossil fuel burning that creates heat-trapping gases globally — is a factor.
A 2014 study by Jenouvrier projected that because of climate change the global population of emperor penguins will likely fall by at least 19% by the year 2100.
The breeding colony failure, Trathan said, “is a warning of things that might become important in the future.”
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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears .
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