The teenage daughter of a North Korean diplomat who defected three months ago has been snatched off the streets of Rome and repatriated, it was claimed on Wednesday.
Jo Song-gil, 48, North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, vanished in November in what was widely believed to be a defection, along with his wife.
But it appears that his 17-year-old daughter was not able to flee with them in time.
The teenager, who was reportedly attending a school in Rome, was kidnapped by North Korean agents and sent back to Pyongyang, according to Thae Yong-ho, former deputy ambassador at North Korea’s embassy in London, who defected three years ago.
It was not clear exactly how she was sent back to North Korea.
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“I don’t know how many children Jo had, but the one who was in Italy was taken back to North Korea,” Mr Thae told Yonhap news agency. “Jo could not manage to get his daughter to join them.”
Italy’s foreign minister said he was not able to confirm the claim.
“We are making the necessary checks,” said Enzo Moavero Milanesi. “We’re following the case closely.”
Mr Jo, who arrived in Rome in 2015 and took up the post of acting ambassador in 2017, has not been seen or heard of since his disappearance in November.
It not known why he chose to defect. The North Korean regime takes stringent precautions against such defections and only grants overseas travel to citizens deemed to be loyal to the regime.
Italian authorities have declined to confirm whether he has sought asylum. South Korean media have reported that he is under Italian protection.
Mr Thae left his post in the UK in 2016 after ignoring an order to return home because he wanted to secure a better future for his children.
North Korea later tried to accuse him of defecting to avoid punishment for committing sex crimes, a charge which he strenuously denied. The embassy in Italy is critical to the repressive regime because it gives access to the Rome-based World Food Programme over food aid.
About 30,000 North Koreans have escaped to South Korea – many of them risking their lives to do so – since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government figures.