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(3rd LD) N. Korean diplomat in Italy vanishes amid reports of asylum bid

North Korea 18:35 January 03, 2019

(ATTN: RECASTS paras 1-3 )

SEOUL/ROME, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean diplomat has deserted the country's embassy in Italy and disappeared together with his wife, South Korea's state intelligence agency said Thursday, amid reports he is seeking asylum in a third country.

Jo Song-gil, the charge d'affaires of the North's Embassy in Rome, has been unaccounted for since early November ahead of the planned end, later that month, of his assignment in Italy, the National Intelligence Service told lawmakers in a closed-door briefing, according to Rep. Kim Min-ki of the ruling Democratic Party.

Earlier in the day, a newspaper reported that Jo is seeking asylum in a third country, and Italian authorities are protecting the 48-year-old Jo and his family at a safe place. It was not known if Jo had expressed a desire to go to South Korea, the report said.

South Korea's presidential office said it has no information.

"There's nothing Cheong Wa Dae knows" about the report, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said in a text message to reporters.

Jo, who was dispatched to Italy in May 2015, has run the North's mission there since Italy expelled Ambassador Mun Jong-nam in October 2017 following the North's sixth nuclear test in September that year.

Jo appears to have decided to seek asylum after he was ordered to return to Pyongyang.

The education of his children could be a reason, as in the case of Thae Yong-ho, a former minister at the North's embassy in London, who defected to the South in 2016.

Jo has reportedly been out of sight for a while.

A diplomatic source in Rome said that Jo has rarely engaged in outside activity as he had limits on carrying out his ambassadorial duties as an acting chief of mission.

The North's embassy consisted of four diplomats -- Jo and another official from the North's foreign ministry, as well as two others in charge of affairs related to the Food and Agriculture Organization headquartered in Rome.

South Korean diplomats in Rome have had few exchanges with their North Korean counterparts in recent years, sources said.

South Korea's Ambassador to Italy Choi Jong-hyun declined to comment on Jo's asylum bid.

"I cannot confirm anything for now. There is nothing that I can say," he said.

(3rd LD) N. Korean diplomat in Italy vanishes amid reports of asylum bid - 1


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