North Korea may have a high-profile defection on its hands. The country’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, apparently fled the North Korean embassy in Rome with his wife weeks ago, before he was to leave his post at the end of November. That's according to South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki, who received a Thursday briefing from the National Intelligence Service, per CNN. Reports suggest Jo has applied for asylum to a Western country, though Italy's Foreign Ministry says it hasn't received any request, reports the AP. It's unclear if Jo's children are with him. Though the children of diplomats serving overseas often remain in North Korea to deter defections, Jo—then the third secretary—arrived in Rome in May 2015 with his wife and children, the Guardian reports via South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
The paper relates this as a mark of privilege for Jo, whom a North Korea expert describes as the "son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North's regime." The 48-year-old had been acting ambassador since October 2017, when Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest of a North Korean nuclear test. JoongAng Ilbo reports Italian authorities are now protecting Jo, though NIS couldn't confirm that, per the AP. His defection, if confirmed, would be the most high-profile since Pyongyang's deputy envoy to the United Kingdom defected to South Korea in 2016. Thae Yong Ho later explained the move was for his children, whom he didn't want to live "miserable" lives in the North. (The names and addresses of 1,000 defectors living in South Korea were just stolen.)