His whereabouts have been unknown for nearly two years – but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had relocated to South Korea in 2019.
“There have been numerous requests for information, so here it is. It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
Delay in posting the defect
Jo disappeared in November 2018, just before his tenure as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy expired, a spokesman for South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki told CNN last year.
Italy no longer has a North Korean ambassador since Pyongyang’s former envoy was expelled after the country’s sixth nuclear test in 2017. According to South Korean lawmakers, Jo joined the embassy as the third secretary in May 2015.
In a statement following the diplomat’s escape, the Italian Foreign Ministry said the North Korean embassy had announced that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female employees of the North Korean embassy after they had requested reunification with their grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
A spokesman for the South Korean chairman of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, Jeon Hae-cheol, told CNN that the South Korean government had not disclosed Jo’s raid for more than a year out of concern for the safety of his family. Jo has voluntarily expressed his wish to come to South Korea, the spokesman said.
Thae, the former British diplomat, criticized the press for exposing news about Jo without his consent.
“It is a delicate matter for diplomats with family members who live in North Korea to divulge their messages (of the defection),” he said in a statement. “This is why other former North Korean diplomats live in South Korea without revealing their identities, and the South Korean government does not disclose this either.”
Thae, who is now a lawmaker in South Korea, urged the country’s journalists “not to focus on (Jo) out of consideration for his daughter in the north.”
Life for defectors
Defectors say North Korea routinely punishes entire families for the crimes of an individual, especially those found guilty of activities against the regime. Those who have left North Korea say their relatives are often sent to prison camps or used by the regime as propaganda tools.
Thae defected with his wife and two sons who were with him in London. However, he said that most of the North Korean diplomats posted abroad do not travel with their families.
Although there are no official statistics showing exactly how many North Koreans have fled their country, South Korea has taken in more than 32,000 defectors since 1998. About 25 million people live in North Korea.
Defectors often face difficult lives even after making it to South Korea. Despite receiving social assistance, many have difficulty finding employment.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and James Griffiths contributed to this report.