A former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016 on Saturday urged a former colleague who has gone into hiding before ending his term in Italy to come to Seoul, as opposed to the US where he is reportedly seeking asylum.
Thae Yong-ho, who was the deputy ambassador in London and the most recent senior diplomat to defect, wrote an open letter to Jo Song-gil, 44, until recently North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, who fled the Rome embassy with his wife in early November without notice.
Jo became acting ambassador in October 2017, and his term was set to expire in late November 2018. His children were reported to have been living with him in Rome.
“It’s an obligation, not a choice, to defect to South Korea for North Korean diplomats like us as well as members of the Korean people,” Thae said in a letter released on his website, which he claimed Jo often visited. The last time they saw each other was six years ago in Pyongyang, according to Thae.
“If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward,” Thae said.
Thae stated several reasons for moving to Seoul, including the economic and political situation as well as the educational environment for his children.
Typically, North Korean diplomats stationed abroad have to leave several family members behind in Pyongyang to prevent their defection. However, given that Jo’s father and father-in-law were senior diplomats, he has reportedly been staying in Rome with his wife and children.
“I thought I learnt a lot about South Korea through the internet as I had been working in foreign countries for a long time. But South Korea has achieved much stronger economic development and democratization than I had thought,” he said. “Sure, the South is not exactly a paradise. But it is a place where you and I can achieve the dream we all have.”
While Jo’s current whereabouts are not confirmed, he has sought asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The US State Department has not made an official comment on the issue.
If Jo is seeking asylum in the US, it would take more time for the US to review his application than for other North Korean defectors, as a diplomat is more deeply involved in the North Korean regime.
Concerns that the case might affect Pyongyang’s relations with the South and the US ahead of a second meeting of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un add to uncertainties in Jo’s attempt to seek asylum.