New info on North Korean acting ambassador Jo Song Gil, who has gone off radar in Italy

Rome -- North Korea's top diplomat in Italy has gone into hiding along with his wife, according to a South Korean lawmaker, raising the possibility of a defection of a senior North Korean official. The news came from South Korea's spy agency, which briefed lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday on the status of North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil. It said he went into hiding with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month.

A high-profile defection by one of North Korea's elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player.

What we know about the ambassador in hiding

Jo had been North Korea's acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in October 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test and long-range missile launch.

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This March 20, 2018 photo made available on Jan. 4, 2019 by Senator Valentino Perin shows North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil, left, with Perin during a cultural event in the Veneto region, in San Pietro di Feletto, near Treviso, northern Italy. AP

Jo seemed comfortable moving around Italy. In March 2018, accompanied by another embassy official, Pak Myong Gil, he visited two factories in Italy's northeastern Veneto region with an eye on eventual trade, according to La Tribuna di Treviso, a local daily.

One factory produced bathroom furnishings and another made accessories from marble. The newspaper quoted the local businessmen as assuming at first the delegation consisted of South Koreans, not North Koreans, given the economic sanctions against North Korea.

Among the Italians accompanying the North Koreans was a former Italian senator for what is now the League party, which in general opposes economic embargoes as bad for business.

The politician, Valentino Perin, told AP he had spoken with Jo many times, including about preparations for the visit to the Veneto region. Perin said he last met with Jo on Sept. 5, at an official reception organized by the North Korean embassy in Rome.

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The flag of North Korea waves inside the compound of the North Korean embassy in Rome, Jan. 3, 2018. AP

Showing Jo's business card, Perin said the North Korean was "very proud" of his people and of his country.

Why North Korea's Rome office is so important

The last senior North Korean diplomat known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, who fled to South Korea in 2016.

In an interview on South Korean television, Thae said he worked with Jo for more than a decade in the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Europe bureau and that Jo had a child when Thae last saw him in 2013.

Thae said Jo comes from a family of diplomats, with his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors.

North Korean defector recalls starvation before escaping to the U.S.

The embassy in Italy is critical for North Korea because it handles annual negotiations with the Rome-based World Food Program over aid to North Korea, Thae said. He also said Italy has been a hub for smuggling luxury items to the North Korean elite, and Jo would have been involved in those activities.

Thae said Jo would have been North Korea's main diplomat for the Vatican and would have also handled discussions involving a possible visit to the North by Pope Francis if such talks had taken place. South Korea said in October that North Korean leader Kim mentioned during a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he would welcome a papal visit.

Thae said he believes Jo was to be replaced by incoming ambassador Kim Chon in November but did not reveal how he obtained such information.

While not identifying him by name, North Korea's state media described Thae as "human scum" after his defection in London, and claimed he was trying to escape punishment for serious crimes. Thae, who has been an outspoken critic of Kim while living in South Korea, denied the accusation and said he defected because he didn't want his children to live "miserable" lives in the North.

It's possible that Jo is trying to defect because of similar reasons, said Koh, a policy adviser for South Korea's president.

"It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education," he told The Associated Press.