By Feature Editor Kevin Lee
Charge d’Affaires Jo Song-gil of North Korea in Italy, who went missing in Italy in November 2018, came to South Korea in July last year and is currently settling down, the head of the South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee confirmed on Oct. 7.
"Former Acting Ambassador Jo came to South Korea voluntarily in July 2019," Rep. Jeon Hae-cheol, chairman of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, told reporters. "He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea."
It is the highest-ranking official of North Korea to defect to South Korea since Hwang Jang-yop, former international secretary of the ruling Workers' Party in 1997.
Former CDA Jo himself has been extremely reluctant to disclose his entry into South Korea due to his family's safety issues in North Korea, and the relevant authorities have also kept this fact quiet.
Some observers say that Jo and his wife initially sought asylum in a third country, including the U.S., not South Korea, but when it was not possible, they inevitably selected South Korea.
Cho's wife visited multiple broadcasters and expressed her intention to go to North Korea, hoping to return to the North where her daughter and family are, raising the possibility that their trip to South Korea might have leaked out.
Their daughter lives in North Korea. In February last year, Italy's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Jo's then underage daughter returned to North Korea on November 14, 2018.
When the speculation of a "forced repatriation to North Korea" was raised, then North Korea’s Acting Amb. Kim Chun, who took over the embassy as Jo's successor, denied the rumors, saying that his daughter hated her parents and wanted to go to Pyongyang to return to her grandparents because she was left alone in Italy by the defector Jo couple.
Nevertheless, it remains controversial whether the daughter left at the embassy after Jo's disappearance was forcibly sent back to North Korea or voluntarily returned to the North where her grandparents were.
Some worry that the disclosure could put his daughter and other former acting ambassador Jo's family in North Korea at risk.
In particular, Kim Yo-jong, the first deputy director of the North's ruling Workers' Party, took issue with the distribution of anti-North Korean leaflets by some groups of North Korean defectors in the South in June, raising the level of hatred toward North Korean defectors.
At that time, the North Korean media reported the news of a simultaneous mass rally to denounce North Korean defectors, and the relevant authorities also strengthened their monitoring of the families of North Korean defectors.
Regarding Jo, who was found to be in exile in South Korea, his former colleague Thae Young-ho, a lawmaker of the opposition People Power Party (PPP), claimed on Oct. 7 that he would be defined as a traitor in North Korea.
"As a former North Korean diplomat and long-time colleague with Jo Song-gil, I express my regret for the indiscriminate exposure of relevant facts through the media without his consent," Thae said in a statement.
Attention is focusing on how the high-ranking North Korean official’s exile in the South in the face of the strained inter-Korean relations will affect the future relations of the two Koreas.
It is also expected to be controversial that the Seoul government has not disclosed the defection of a high-ranking North Korean official for more than a year amid criticism over the shooting of a South Korean government official by the North in the West Sea.
The North’s embassy in Italy is in charge of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which handles food aid, so it is selected as an important overseas mission of North Korea.
In response, the North Korea's Foreign Ministry is known to have deployed only elites who have high royalty to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and are recognized for their ability to the embassy in Italy.
Jo is fluent in four languages, including Italian and French, and is said to be good at working as a deputy ambassador after Moon Jong-nam, a former North Korean ambassador to Italy, was expelled in the aftermath of U.N. sanctions against the North.
Former acting ambassador Jo disappeared after taking a walk with his wife in November 2018 while on duty, and their whereabouts have remained unknown until recently.
At one time, foreign media and others reported unconfirmed speculation that Jo and his wife were waiting for asylum under the protection of Italian authorities, or that they had already moved to the U.S. or Britain.
Meanwhile, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha responded to the press report by saying that she was surprised to hear that Jo is staying in South Korea since last year.
Minister Kang said during a parliamentary audit of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, "I was surprised that the article came out. I don't know anything about the details of the report, and I have nothing to tell."
Regarding the ministry's role in Jo's defection to South Korea, she said, "The ministry has played enough of its role, but it is difficult to tell you the details."