A diplomatic crisis between Italy and North Korea is brewing over the alleged abduction of the 17-year-old daughter of Jo Song Gil, who until November was North Korea’s ambassador to Rome.
Jo and his wife fled the embassy in November shortly before he was due to be recalled to Pyongyang, raising suspicions he defected from the Communist tyranny. A well-known defector, former diplomat Thae Yong-ho, alleges Jo’s daughter was kidnapped from Rome by North Korean agents and forcibly returned to Pyongyang before she could be reunited with her parents.
“North Korean authorities sent her back home immediately and she’s now under their custody in Pyongyang,” Thae said at a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday, sourcing the claim to contacts he maintains in Pyongyang.
“I don’t know how many children Jo has, but the child that was in Italy was sent back North,” Thae told South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo on Wednesday.
“Jo and his wife are together now,” he added, although neither Italy nor any other country has yet announced a formal asylum request from the couple.
Thae said he warned the United Nations and the South Korean embassy in Italy that Jo and his family needed protection. At his press conference in Seoul, he suggested Jo’s daughter is now a hostage and will be treated much more harshly if her father takes residence in South Korea, a move the North Koreans would regard as a deep insult.
“I thought it was strange that I didn’t get a response from anyone, but now I understand. They kept silent because of Jo’s daughter, and I think I should also keep quiet from now on,” he said.
Thae’s decision to keep quiet came a bit too late to avoid diplomatic fallout. Italian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Manilo di Stefano mourned his government’s failure to protect the girl and said she now “risks being tortured by one of the worst regimes in the world.”
“Those responsible for this will pay, you can be sure of that,” he vowed.
“North Korean intelligence seized the daughter of the North Korean ambassador Jo Song-gil on Italian soil? This is a serious episode. Matteo Salvini must report to parliament as soon as possible,” parliamentary leader Maria Edera Spadoni said after the allegations of kidnapping were made public.
Di Stefano’s ministry, however, released a statement soon afterward that said Jo’s daughter asked to return to North Korea to live with her grandparents and was escorted home, rather than being kidnapped. Some of North Korea’s apologists in the Italian government accused Jo and his wife of selfishly abandoning their daughter, who suffers from some sort of “disability,” and argued she was properly returned to the care of her grandparents.