SEOUL – North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has sought asylum, a newspaper said Thursday, in what would be another high-profile defection by one of Pyongyang’s envoys.
Jo Song Gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, applied for asylum to an unidentified Western country with his family, South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul.
“He sought asylum early last month,” the newspaper quoted one source as saying.
Italian authorities were “agonizing” over what to do, the official was quoted 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 Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest over a nuclear test by the North a month earlier in violation of U.N. resolutions.
He is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime,” the JoongAng newspaper cited an unnamed North Korea expert as saying.
Most North Korean diplomats serving overseas are 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 that he may be from a privileged family, the paper said, adding that the reason for his defection bid was still unclear.
Thae, who at the time of his defection was the 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. The regime stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.
North Korea’s main state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary on Thursday that last year saw “wonderful changes” and “great movements” in North Korea’s relations with South Korea and the United States, but that progress in inter-Korean relations are for now “locked up in stagnation” because of U.S. policies.
“The U.S. still remains unchanged in the policy hostile towards the DPRK,” the paper wrote, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The paper accused the United States of having a “sinister intention to deprive the DPRK of its nuclear weapons and bring it to its knees without goodwill to build a new, good relationship with the DPRK.”
“The U.S. is urged to do what it should do for the improvement of the DPRK-U.S. relations, not making useless admonition while meddling in the issue of north-south relations, an internal issue of the Korean nation,” it said.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang last year, but the two sides have yet to reschedule an abruptly canceled November meeting between him and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol aimed at paving the way for a second summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. Donald Trump, following their meeting in Singapore in June.
As well as demanding a lifting of sanctions, Pyongyang has been seeking an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps that have included dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a missile engine facility.
U.S. officials have said the extent of initial North Korean steps has not been confirmed and could be easily reversed.
Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with South Korea to aid negotiations, but has also called for strict global sanctions enforcement until North Korea’s full, verifiable denuclearization.