SEOUL—A North Korean diplomat in Rome has gone into hiding along with his wife, South Korean lawmakers said, citing Seoul’s intelligence agency, a development that presents embarrassment for Pyongyang as it negotiates nuclear disarmament with the U.S.
It isn’t clear whether Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s interim ambassador to Italy until late last year, is seeking to flee to another country. But Kim Min-ki— a lawmaker on the South Korean legislature’s intelligence committee, which was briefed by Seoul intelligence officials on Thursday—told reporters that Italian authorities were holding the couple.
“He escaped the diplomatic compound in early November and…went into hiding,” Mr. Kim said.
An Italian Foreign Ministry official said North Korea had notified Italy about a month ago that it was replacing the chargé d’affaires but wasn’t aware of a diplomat seeking Italy’s protection.
Mr. Jo had served in Italy since May 2015 and had overseen North Korea’s mission there since Italy expelled Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in 2017 in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons tests. Mr. Jo’s term in Rome had been due to end in November 2018.
The apparent defection is a high-profile setback for the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and is likely to raise questions about loyalty within the Pyongyang elite.
“North Korean diplomats defecting is a fatal blow to Kim Jong Un, because his personality and his foreign policy could be leaked,” said Kang Myung Do, who defected in 1994 and is a professor of North Korean studies at Kyonggi University in South Korea.
The Rome incident comes at a critical time for North Korea, as talks with Washington have reached an impasse over how to implement their June agreement on denuclearization. On Thursday, North Korea accused the U.S. in a state-media commentary of failing to change its hostile policy toward Pyongyang and of thwarting efforts by North and South Korea to improve cross-border relations.
Calls to the North Korean Embassy in Rome went unanswered Thursday, and there was no immediate comment from Pyongyang via its state media.
North Korea has suffered defections of diplomats in the past. In 2016, its deputy ambassador to the U.K., Thae Yong Ho, defected to the South, saying he was “sick and tired” of the Kim regime, according to Seoul officials. A year earlier, a North Korean colonel switched allegiances to Seoul.
“North Korean diplomats defecting is a fatal blow to Kim Jong Un, because his personality and his foreign policy could be leaked.”
North Korea regularly characterizes defectors as traitors, denigrating them in public statements with descriptions such as “human scum.”
In 1997, two North Korean diplomats who were brothers, based in Egypt and France, respectively, successfully sought asylum in the U.S. along with their families, while another North Korean official in Rome fled with his family to South Korea in February 1998.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea regarding Pyongyang’s ballistic-missile program collapsed following the defections, before the two sides agreed to resume negotiations in March 1998.
Nearly 20 North Korean diplomats have defected to South Korea in unpublicized incidents, according to Mr. Kang, who was a high-level defector. But the recent improvement in inter-Korean relations means the South Korean government is probably reluctant to receive former North Korean diplomats, Mr. Kang said.
South Korea’s government hasn’t gotten any indication that Mr. Jo is seeking to come to Seoul, said Kim Min-ki, the lawmaker.
A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office declined to comment Thursday, but Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, chaired a meeting of the National Security Council. Mr. Moon’s office didn’t say whether Mr. Jo’s case was discussed.
North Koreans have continued to flee their homeland under Mr. Kim’s dictatorship. For most, escape means a perilous journey across China and into Southeast Asia, where they are received by South Korean officials. Their families left behind in the North suffer financial and social penalties, according to defector testimonies.
Some 1,042 North Koreans arrived in South Korea in the 11 months through November, according to provisional data from Seoul’s Unification Ministry. Around 32,000 North Koreans have settled in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to ministry data.
—Timothy W. Martin in Seoul and Marcus Walker in Rome contributed to this article.
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