North Korea’s interim ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, who has reportedly defected, could prove to be a treasure trove of information about a secretive body at the very heart of the North Korean regime, Asia Times has learned.
Because of his family background and connections, his defection would be tremendously sensitive in South Korea, which is now in the midst of a fragile and fraught engagement process with North Korea.
South Korean newspaper the Joongang Ilbo reported the defection on Thursday, saying that Jo, 48, had sought asylum in December. Yonhap news agency reported that Jo had, in fact, left his post in Rome in November.
Pyongyang’s ambassador to Rome left in October 2017, making charge d’affaires Jo the head man in the embassy.
According to an informed source who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, Jo – described as “more important than the ambassador” – is the son of the late deputy head of Pyongyang’s Organization and Guidance Department, or OGD.
The OGD, an ultra-select body of the Korea Workers Party’s Central Committee, was seen by inside sources as the most important state organ under the regime of the late Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011. Defectors such as Hwang Jang Yeop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to come to the South, and Jang Jin Sung, a former regime propaganda officer, considered the OGD of critical importance to state affairs.
Though it is not clear if the OGD is as central to Kim Jong Un’s governance as it was to his father’s, Jo, given his family connection, would be extremely well acquainted with Pyongyang’s top-level elites and the inner workings of and processes of the regime.
His present whereabouts are unknown, but he is thought to be under the protection of Italian authorities.
Where to defect to?
South Korea’s presidential office said it had no information on the reported defection. Asia Times has learned that Jo is more likely to seek asylum in the United States than South Korea – which, amid a fragile engagement process with North Korea, would not be likely to welcome such a high-profile regime insider and the complications that would entail.
David Tizzard, a PhD candidate in Seoul who studies North Korean diplomacy, agreed that the political climate in South Korea for defectors at this time may be far from welcoming.
“On the South Korean message boards today there is a lot of reluctance for him to come to Korea,” the scholar said. “There is opposition, there are threats being made against him, telling him he should go to the USA, not South Korea.”
The only other North Korean ambassador known to have defected, Jong Sung Il, who was accredited to Cairo in 1997, also defected to the US, rather than South Korea.
All roads lead to Rome
While North Korea maintains a network of embassies in European capitals, Italy is a particularly important location for Pyongyang, given that Rome hosts the UN’s World Food Program. North Korea suffered famines in the 1990s and continues to face widespread malnourishment to this day.
In the past, the embassy is also believed to have handled shipments of Italian luxury goods – ranging from ice-cream and fresh fish to marble interior decorations – for the Kim family.
The North Korea foreign service, as is the case in other countries, is considered an elite career, offering the opportunity of foreign travel and access to policy-level information. In Pyongyang’s case, diplomats are believed to be screened for loyalty. However, this has not prevented very significant leakage over the last three decades.
Diplomats have defected from embassies including those in Egypt, Thailand, the UK, Zambia and even UN organizations. Thae Yong-ho, the number two man at the North Korean embassy in the UK who defected to South Korea in 2016, has been particularly prominent, speaking out against the Kim regime in venues in South Korea and elsewhere. He has even published an autobiographical book about his experiences.
Defections from embassies are doubly embarrassing as they highlight the foreign-exchange garnering role that North Korean diplomats engage in, frequently including contraband.
“This is obviously something North Korea does not like as it makes them look bad, and following events like this, they recall people,” said Tizzard of such defections. “More broadly, ambassadors are representatives of the state and so this is a blemish on the government as it shows a lack of unity and cohesion.”
He noted that diplomats sent to Western European countries tend to be particularly loyal and well connected.