By Stefan J. Bos
The disappeared North Korean official has been identified as Jo Song-gil. He is the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome and the son and son-in-law of high-ranking North Korean officials.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday that Jo went into hiding with his wife in November before his term in Italy ended. His whereabouts are not publicly known now.
It is believed he has sought asylum in an unnamed Western nation.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement however that the envoy has not yet asked Italian authorities for asylum.
The last senior diplomat to defect was the deputy ambassador in London. Thae Yong-ho abandoned his post in 2016, along with his wife and children. He defected to South Korea.
Thae said in an interview with South Korean television on Thursday that the Italian embassy was critical for North Korea because it handled negotiations with the World Food Programme over food aid to the North and was a hub for smuggling luxury items to the North Korean elite.
He earlier spoke in separate remarks about the difficulties he faced. "The reason for my defection is a very complex one," he said. "Because I thought and planned this defection for quite a long time. We just disappeared, and they could not find us. I believe that my defection in the long term will encourage further defections."
As one of the highest-ranking officials to ever defect from the North, Thae's move was seen as a blow to Kim Jong-un's regime.
He would go on to urge the world to spread information in North Korea to undermine Kim's status among his people amid concerns about massive human rights abuses and detention camps where Christians and others face immense hardships. The latest defection by another high ranking diplomat was expected to raise at least some anxiety among Kim Jong-un allies.