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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's missing envoy to Italy is now in Seoul

He and his wife vanished from Rome two years ago

A South Korean news program airs a photo of Jo Song Gil on Oct. 7. Jo had been North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy before he vanished in November 2018.    © AP

SEOUL -- North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy who went missing in 2018 has been living in South Korea for over a year, South Korean lawmakers said, making him the first diplomat of his rank to defect under current leader Kim Jong Un.

Jo Song Gil served as acting ambassador to Italy from September 2017 until he went missing in Rome in November 2018. He had assumed the post after Italy expelled the former ambassador following the North's sixth nuclear test.

Jo is now living in South Korea with his wife, members of South Korean parliament's intelligence committee revealed on Wednesday.

Ha Tae-keung, who sits on the intelligence committee in the National Assembly, said Jo came to South Korea in July 2019 and is under the government protection.

North Korea is expected to ramp up criticism against South Korea over the news. When Thae Yong Ho, then the North's No. 2 diplomat in the U.K., defected in 2016, North Korea slammed Thae as a criminal and "human scum," while accusing the British and South Korean governments of using him as propaganda.

Jo had reportedly been seeking asylum in a third country under the protection of the Italian government. His daughter is believed to have been returned to North Korea.

Jo is an elite official who speaks Italian and French and whose father and father-in-law were also diplomats, according to Thae. Thae is now a lawmaker under the South's conservative People Power Party.

Jo was tasked with securing luxury items for Kim through his diplomatic activities, South Korean media report. There had been speculation that Free Joseon, an anti-Kim group involved in a raid on the North Korean Embassy in Spain last year, was involved in his defection.

Other high-profile North Korean defectors include Hwang Jang Yop, a former secretary of the ruling Workers Party, and then-ambassador to Egypt Chang Sung Gil. Both fled in 1997, Hwang to South Korea and Chang to the U.S.

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