Defection: Where in the world is North Korea's ambassador to Italy?

Looks like someone really didn’t want to return home. Not long after North Korea announced that it would replace its ambassador to Italy, the incumbent and his wife slipped off the grid. Two months later, Reuters reports that the couple has defected to the West and has applied for asylum … somewhere:

A North Korean diplomat who was until recently acting ambassador to Italy has gone missing, a South Korean member of parliament said on Thursday, after a South Korean newspaper reported he was seeking asylum in the West.

The diplomat, Jo Song Gil, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, according to Kim Min-ki, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by the National Intelligence Service.

Earlier on Thursday, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, citing an unidentified diplomatic source, said Jo, 48, had applied for asylum to an unspecified Western country and was in a “safe place” with his family under the protection of the Italian government.

This would be the second top-ranking diplomat to defect from the Kim regime in the last three years. Thae Yong Ho, who had been a deputy ambassador to the UK, ended up in South Korea rather than go back home. Since then, Thae has repeatedly warned the West and the US in particular about Kim Jong-un’s intentions.

One has to wonder what Jo has to tell the West. Reuters notes that Jo served over a year as “acting” ambassador to Italy after Rome expelled his predecessor over Kim’s repeated nuclear and missile testing. Jo would have insider knowledge about Kim’s sudden shift toward friendlier relations with the US and the West. His sudden replacement in November might have been just a normal transition to a more regular appointment, but it might have also meant that perhaps Pyongyang was worried about what Jo might know — and what he might be saying.

Just the fact that Jo had his wife with him might have been enough to make the Kim regime nervous:

North Korea has long been concerned about the possibility of defections, especially among its elites. The secretive country has insisted in the past that diplomatic defections are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its communist government, reports the AP. According to Corriere Della Sera, most North Korean diplomats are required to leave their families at home in order to discourage defections.

Will this put a dent in the relationship between Kim and Donald Trump? The president made a point yesterday to mention the “great letter” he got from Kim, even while the North Korean dictator was issuing more ominous public statements:

President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent him a “great letter” and that the two men would both like to meet for a second time.

“We’ve really established a very good relationship,’’ Trump said Wednesday during a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a day after Kim threatened to backtrack on promises to give up his nuclear arsenal if the U.S. doesn’t relax sanctions against the country.

Trump said there would have been a “big fat war in Asia” if he hadn’t met with Kim in Singapore last year, and that “they really want to do something” to reduce tensions between the countries. But he added that he’s “not in any rush” to hold a second meeting.

Just how serious is Kim about returning to the previous tensions? Even the warnings came in a softer form than usual, Bloomberg pointed out in a later analysis:

Kim Jong Un raised eyebrows with his veiled threat to take a “new path” toward the U.S. if President Donald Trump didn’t agree to relax sanctions. The phrasing may betray how few options he has.

The warning in Kim’s New Year’s address Tuesday was far tamer than past North Korean efforts at saber-rattling, such as his reference last year to the “nuclear button” on his desk. …

Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at Central Intelligence Agency, said Kim chose his words to cast the U.S. as the unreasonable party should he decide to walk away from negotiations. Then he can resume the diplomatic deep-freeze with the U.S. that existed before Kim first moved to open talks a year ago.

“The new path is essentially not much different from the old path,” she said. That may because he has no other alternatives.

Kim’s continued hopes for his personal diplomacy with Trump were apparent in the conditional language he used, saying he “might be” forced to “explore” a new path. And his remarks about the U.S. were unusually positive for a North Korean speech.

“That’s not really a threat,” Robert Carlin, a non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center, told reporters after the speech. “It’s a soft formulation, very deliberately, because Kim did not want to overshadow all the positive things that he said.”

Bloomberg notes that the regime used blunter language in November, making this a bit of a climb-down. Is it a coincidence that Jo’s apparent defection took place shortly afterward? Perhaps. It might also be that Jo has more information on the cards that Kim is presently holding and that Pyongyang is now more carefully considering its bluffs.

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