The Truth About the Disappearance of a North Korean Diplomat



RECROP OF TRV103 – This March 20, 2018 photo made available Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019 by the Parish of Farra di Soligo, shows North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil, center, holding a model of “Bell of Peace of Rovereto” during a cultural event on the occasion of a visit of the North Korean delegation to the Veneto region, in San Pietro di Feletto, near Treviso, northern Italy. Jo Song Gil, went into hiding with his wife in November, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday. Jo Song Gil is flanked by don Brunone De Toffol, parish priest of Farra di Soligo, left, and Senator Valentino Perin, right. (Parish of Farra di Soligo via AP)

Lauren Smilen, Staff Writer

Jo Song-gil, North Korea’s former ambassador to Rome, vanished from that city with his wife in November, 2018, just days before they were supposed to return to Pyongyang. His whereabouts since then have been unknown, until Wednesday, September 30th. South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-Keung publicly stated through Facebook that Jo defected to South Korea in July 2019, and is currently in Seoul.

“There had been numerous requests for information, so here it is,” Ha said. “It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection.” 

Mr. Jo is the highest-ranking government official to defect to South Korea since the defection of Hwang Jang-yop, the secretary of North Korea’s Workers’ Party in 1997, through the help of South Korea’s embassy in Beijing. Although not as high-ranking as Jo or Hwang, Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat, also defected to Seoul in 2016 with his wife and two children. Shortly after Jo and his wife left Rome and fled to South Korea, their daughter was escorted back to North Korea by female staff from the North Korean embassy to be reunited with her grandparents. According to a spokesperson from South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee, the South Korean government did not publicize Jo’s defection for over a year in order to protect his family’s safety. Thae wrote Jo a letter before he defected, encouraging him to come to the South. After Jo and his wife left their daughter behind to be sent back to the North, Thae stated that it would now be hard for them to settle in South Korea. Last year, Thae told reporters that in order to protect his daughter, Jo may remain silent about his location, as his daughter “would suffer a more severe retaliatory punishment if he chose to defect to South Korea.” After it was publicly revealed that Jo had been in South Korea for the past two years, Thae stated that he was worried about the repercussions for Jo’s daughter in the North. Usually, North Korea punishes the entire family of an individual who defects, such as sending them to a prison camp or using them as a tool for propaganda. 

Although Jo defected two years ago and his exact whereabouts have only recently been made public, his disappearance was kept secret until last year. At this time, a South Korean newspaper wrote a paper claiming that he was seeking refuge in the West. The South Korean government took a long time to publicly announce Jo’s defection to South Korea out of concern for his family’s well-being. As Thae pleads with journalists in the South to steer away from writing about Jo out of respect for his family, he has stated the following: “For diplomats who have family members living in North Korea, to reveal their news (of defection) is a sensitive matter. That is why other former North Korean diplomats are living in South Korea without revealing their identity and the South Korean government does not reveal it either.” 

This information about Jo could cause further tension between the North and South, which has been continuously increasing, especially in the last few months. In June of this year, North Korea blew up a joint liaison office and also killed a South Korean government official. Defections by diplomats are also seen as decreasing loyalty from the privileged class in North Korea, as they could possibly allow the South Korean government to gain information, specifically about the illegal ways North Korean diplomats gain currency while breaching the sanctions of the United Nations. 

Since the mid-1990s, over 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South. In North Korea, these people are often called “human scum” or “traitors,” and the North Korean government has even claimed at times that the defectors were kidnapped by the South Korean government. Even after defectors have settled in South Korea, they often face a challenging life ahead of them. Many of them are unable to get jobs, although they are given welfare support. While North Korea has yet to comment on Jo’s defection, the futures for himself and his family are unknown.