A top North Korean official has supposedly defected to the South as per a lawmaker in Seoul. The official disappeared mysteriously in 2018 and while it was suspected that he deserted Kim Jong Un's totalitarian regime, there was no confirmed report. But on Tuesday (October 6), a member of South Korea's intelligence community has confirmed that the official defected to the South.
The official was a former North Korean acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil. He was an official in the embassy and was appointed as the acting ambassador after then diplomat Mun Jong Nam was expelled following North's sixth nuclear test in 2017.
However, days before he was supposed to return to Pyongyang, he along with his wife disappeared in late 2018. Member of South Korea's National Assembly, Ha Tae Keung, who is also a part of the intelligence committee, confirmed the reports on Facebook that Jo fled to the South 15 months ago.
Since then, Jo has been living in the South with his wife under government protection according to Seoul's intelligence community. The news of the defection first emerged in South Korean news channel JTBC but to avoid speculations, Ha confirmed the report saying that the committee decided not to provide any additional details to keep Jo safe.
However, South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) on Wednesday said that it "will not confirm" the reports even after Ha's Facebook post. But later Jeon Hae Cheol, a Head of the Parliamentary Intelligence committee confirmed the reports to media while Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha said that the ministry did "what it could" to help Jo.
While his disappearance was kept a secret by North Korea, last year reports emerged that Pyongyang had allegedly kidnapped Jo's daughter from Rome and brought her back to the country. Manlio Di Stefano, Italian foreign ministry's undersecretary, condemned the act and said if confirmed, that would be of "unprecedented gravity". "Those responsible for this will pay, you can be sure of that," he said in a Facebook post.
Further Escalates Tension
The reports will further escalate tensions between the two neighbors as Kim Jong Un despises defectors and has often called them "human scums". With the tensions already mounting, following a series of provocations by the South, Jo's defection might trigger another serious confrontation. Furthermore, Pyongyang also fears that deserters would reveal the country's secrets to the South including smuggling, money laundering and foreign currency exchange despite United Nations' sanctions.
Jo is one of the most high-profile North Korean officials to defect to the South in recent times. In 2016, North Korean diplomat, Thae Yong Ho, who was the deputy ambassador to London defected to South Korea in 2016. Now, he is a member of the South Korean National Assembly. That time he said he defected as he feared his children would have to "miserable" lives in the North. Thae issued a statement urging media not to reveal too much about Jo as his daughter is still living in the North.
Last month, North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean official who mistakenly crossed the maritime border. Following that, the victim's body was set on fire to avoid Coronavirus infection. He was an official of South Korea's oceans and fisheries ministry. Kim Jong Un later apologized for the incident, saying he was "very sorry". In June, North Korean troops had blown up a joint liaison office at Kaesong. Thus far, Pyongyang has not made a comment about Jo.