ROME—North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, was supposed to go back home when his mandate ended in late November. He had been stationed in Italy since 2015 and was named as acting ambassador when Italy kicked out his predecessor, Mun Jong Nam, in October 2017 in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.
Instead of returning directly to North Korea when his gig was up in November, the acting ambassador reportedly took a little Italian vacation, which he’d apparently like to extend for life, according to South Korea's Yonhap news service, which first reported what appears to be a high-level defection.
“Italian authorities are reportedly protecting the 48-year-old Jo and his family at a safe place,” the news agency reports. “It was not immediately clear if Jo had expressed a desire to go to South Korea.”
The defection, if confirmed, puts Italy in a precarious situation. Granting such political asylum could cause a rift between the ruling government and the United States. South Korean newspaper Joong Ang Libo reported that the ambassador made his application in early December, after being recalled to North Korea for reassignment. The paper claimed that Italian security agencies were protecting the diplomatic family in an undisclosed location and that Italian authorities were “agonizing” about whether to grant asylum to Jo and his family. Some reports indicate they are hoping that he is granted asylum by another European nation.
The South Korean paper also reported that the ambassador is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime,” but gave no quoted source for the information.
The diplomatic dilemma comes as Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi touches down in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to start a two-day state visit. His schedule includes top-level meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton.
“Italy intends to further intensify its relations with the United States,” according to a statement released by Italy’s foreign ministry ahead of the state visit. But granting asylum to a North Korean defector would surely be seen as an affront to the Trump administration, which is working to bolster diplomatic relations with the rogue nation.
The last high-level defection of a North Korean diplomat was Thae Yong Ho, who defected to South Korea in 2016 after leaving his assignment as deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom. At the time, North Korea called him “human scum” and demanded that he be extradited to face charges of embezzlement, leaking state secrets, and sexually assaulting a minor.
In an interview with the National Endowment for Democracy, Thae said defecting was “extremely dangerous and risky mission” and anyone caught could easily face torture or immediate execution.
“I didn’t want to see and let my children lead that life, like me,” he said. “I don’t want them to spend the rest of their lives in North Korea, pretending loyal[ty] to the system and the leader.”
Calls and emails to the North Korean embassy in Rome for comment were not answered on Thursday.