The North Korean diplomat who has reportedly defected from Pyongyang’s embassy in Rome is from a prestigious diplomatic family and would have vital information on the inner-workings of Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Jo Song-gil, the North’s acting ambassador to Rome, went into hiding with his wife in November and is reportedly seeking asylum.
Experts have said he could be in the US already and would have detailed knowledge of how the North smuggles luxury items into the country and who the key players are in the North Korean leader’s inner circle.
Citing an unidentified diplomatic source, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported on Thursday that Jo had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a "safe place" with his family under the protection of the Italian government.
The Italian ministry of foreign affairs told The Telegraph that it was not aware of any request made by Mr Jo for asylum in Italy.
Mr Jo will be aware that his decision to flee could cost the lives of any of his relatives still in the North, while he and his wife will for many years be looking over their shoulders for Pyongyang’s agents.
“Rome has been Pyongyang’s most important European embassy for many years, partly because it has been the location for talks with the UN World Food Programme for aid, but also because it handles most of the luxury goods that the regime wants to obtain from Europe”, said Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence charged with monitoring the North.
“The embassy arranged shipments of cars, yachts, building materials like marble and expensive foods, such as fish and even ice cream”, he told The Telegraph.
Mr Rah said Mr Jo’s apparent defection is likely to have been planned for some time and that, as in cases in which he was involved, the defectors have already been flown to the US via the US air force base outside Frankfurt.
It is clear that Mr Jo, 48, was trusted by the regime, Mr Rah said, as he was the son of the deputy head of the regime’s Organisation and Guidance Department, an agency of the Workers’ Party of Korea tasked with “completely implementing the teachings and decisions of the Great Leader”.
Previous defectors have described the OGD as the “only entity that actually matters when it comes to decision-making or policy-making” – while some have even suggested that Mr Kim is a “puppet” of the leaders of the department.
Thae Yong-ho, who defected from North Korea’s embassy in London in 2016, said Mr Jo’s father had passed away, while his father-in-law, Ri To Sop, served as ambassador to Thailand in the 1990s and once handled diplomatic protocol for the ruling Kim family at the foreign ministry.
"I worked with Jo in the same department at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry for so long but never imagined that he would seek asylum," Mr Thae told Seoul’s Channel A. "The news shocked me.
"I also worked for years with his father-in-law, a well-known, veteran diplomat in Pyongyang who also served as consul-general in Hong Kong in the 2000s," Mr Thae added in the interview late on Thursday.
Mr Jo’s wife graduated from Pyongyang’s prestigious medical school, with both families enjoying privileged lives as members of the North’s "wealthy, prestigious elite", Mr Thae said.
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The couple used to live in the "nicest apartment" in Pyongyang, he added.
The last time Mr Thae saw Mr Jo, before he was stationed in Britain in 2013, he had one child and he understands he brought that child with him when he was dispatched to Italy. The JoongAng Ilbo suggested they had another child, saying Mr Jo was with his wife and "children".
The fact he was able to take his family to Rome with him was another indication that Mr Jo was among the trusted elite in Pyongyang.
North Korea forced diplomats stationed overseas to leave children at home after Mr Kim took power in late 2011.
Mr Thae, the former deputy ambassador to Britain, said in his 2018 memoir that was the main reason behind his defection, calling it a "hostage" scheme.
“Mr Kim is going to be extremely angry at this (latest defection), particularly as it comes at a time he was basking in international attention because of his recent diplomatic successes”, Mr Rah said. “He has lost face and, for Mr Jo’s relatives still in the North, it will be bad”.
Defectors’ families are typically sent to a labour camp for varying periods of time, he said, although the seniority of this defector, his knowledge of the inner workings of the regime and the embarrassment caused will almost certainly warrant a more severe punishment.
Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor specialising in North Korean affairs at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said debriefers in the US would be particularly interested in the personnel changes that Mr Kim is making as he continues to replace his father’s political and military appointees with his own men.
“They will also want to know about the situation with the military because it is clear that there is still significant instability in Pyongyang," he added. “Mr Kim made virtually no mention of the armed forces in his New Year’s speech and his father’s ‘military first’ policy is a thing of the past, so there is a great deal of discontent among the top officers."
And Mr Jo will “need to be very careful from now on”, Mr Shigemura said, as North Korea has a track record of settling scores with defectors and opponents of the regime.
In 2012, An Hak-young, a North Korea agent, was sentenced to four years in prison by a South Korean court after plotting to assassinate Park Sang-hak, an outspoken critic of the North, while the previous year Patrick Kim, a South Korean pastor who was helping North Korean defectors flee through China, was killed with a poisoned needle.
Most famously, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean dictator, was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017 with VX nerve gas.
Mr Jo, who studied in Italy from 2006 to 2009 and is known to be fluent in French and Italian as well as English, was assigned to the Rome embassy in May 2015.
He became temporary acting ambassador in October 2017, after Italy expelled the then ambassador Mun Jong-nam in protest at a nuclear test Pyongyang staged a month earlier in violation of UN resolutions.
Mr Jo has not contacted Seoul’s spy agency since he went into hiding, said Seoul lawmakers briefed by the intelligence authorities, suggesting he was seeking asylum in a third nation in the West.
A source familiar with the matter, who asked to remain unnamed in order to speak about a sensitive political issue, told Reuters that Mr Jo was officially replaced as acting ambassador by Kim Chon in late November.