A former high-ranking North Korean diplomat who mysteriously disappeared in 2018 fled to South Korea last year and has lived there ever since, lawmakers in Seoul announced on Wednesday.
While serving as the North Korean ambassador to Italy, Jo Song-gil disappeared from the North Korean embassy in Rome with his wife in 2018, just days before his term was due to end. Reports at the time suggested that he had sought the protection of Western governments to prevent returning to his homeland.
On Wednesday, Democratic Party Rep. Jeon Hae-cheol, who heads the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, confirmed Jo arrived in South Korea in July 2019.
“Former acting Ambassador Jo came to South Korea voluntarily in July 2019,” Jeon said. “He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea.”
As the ambassador to a leading European power and the son and son-in-law of high-ranking regime officials, Jo is the most senior defector from the country since 1997, when Hwang Jang-yop, a former secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party, defected to Seoul through the South Korean Embassy in Beijing.
The reveal raises serious concerns for the welfare of his teenage daughter, repatriated to North Korea in February 2019 at her own request after her parents went missing. Under the regime’s communist rule, family members of traitors can face retribution ranging from a downgrade of their status and living standards all the way to being sent to a gulag and facing execution.
Thae Yong-ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who similarly defected to the South in 2016 and now serves as a lawmaker there, said that her punishment may depend on her father’s whereabouts, with defectors who move to the South considered the worst kind of traitors.
“Where a defected diplomat lives determines the levels of treatment or punishment to be given to his relatives left in the North,” he told reporters. “If he takes asylum in South Korea, he is defined as a traitor, apostate. And no one knows what penalties would be imposed on the family members of a traitor.”
The revelation of Jo’s whereabouts has therefore sparked criticism as it has likely placed his daughter at greater risk. Opposition lawmaker Cho Tae-yong, who is also a former deputy national security advisor, said the government’s leaking of such information was highly irresponsible.
“It was impossible to know without help from intelligence authorities and the government effectively confirmed it, which was an act that completely lacked humanitarian considerations regarding his daughter,” Cho told a parliamentary session.