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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Pyongyang’s Ambassador to Italy Applies for Political Asylum


Roberto Tumbarello

Thu, 10 Jan 2019 10:25 GMT

Jo Song-gil, 48, Pyongyang's ambassador to Italy, has been gone for over a month. Nothing has been heard of him since November 20th, when he left his residence but failed to turn up at his office. He was replaced by Kim Chon.

The disappearance seemed to coincide with a normal diplomatic turnover. The North Korean foreign ministry appointed Kim Chon as new ambassador and recalled Jo Song-gil, who had been in Rome with his family for more than a year as a charge d'affaires (interim ambassador).

From Seoul now comes the news that the Pyongyang diplomat has asked for political asylum, for himself and all the members of his family, in an unspecified western country.

Even if the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it knows nothing, it seems likely that the diplomat is directly under the protection of Rome in a secret and safe place, waiting to be transferred to the country where he has applied for political asylum.

Revealing this new defection among the diplomats of the Kim Jong-un regime and providing the details of Jo Song-gil is the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, which cites anonymous but reliable sources in Seoul. From the North Korean embassy in Rome, there is no comment. The rotation to the delegation summit is confirmed.

An asylum application by a high-ranking North Korean official is a very rare case. Jo Song-gil's desertion follows that two years previously by Thae Yong-ho, number two in the Pyongyang embassy in London. Thae justified the decision for family reasons. He wanted his children to have a Western education and to live in a free country. 

Jo Song-gil held the position of charge d'affaires from October 9th 2017, following the expulsion by the Italian authorities of Ambassador Mun Jong-nam, who failed to give plausible justifications for Pyongyang’s nuclear test that violated UN resolutions.

The embassy at the Quirinale in Italy is among the most important North Korean diplomatic offices because it includes control of the news related to the Vatican and FAO, the UN food agency that is based in Rome.

In general, as a method to prevent escapes, Northern Korean diplomats must leave home several members of the family, especially children. Jo Song-gil was allowed to take up his post in Rome accompanied by his wife and children, thanks to the support he had with the government. According to the Seoul daily, Jo Song-gil is a son or son-in-law of a senior official from Pyongyang, close to Kim Jong-un's inner circle.

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