U.S. mum on high level North Korean: Defection could derail Trump-Kim summit

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by WorldTribune Staff, January 6, 2019

The United States has been silent on reports by Italian media that North Korea’s ambassador to Italy has sought to defect to the U.S.

Jo Song-Gil

The alleged request for asylum by Jo Song-Gil could be a sticking point for a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, analysts say.

Jo has not contacted South Korean intelligence since he went into hiding, said South Korean lawmakers briefed by the intelligence authorities, suggesting he was seeking asylum in a third nation in the West. Analysts said the current Seoul government’s warming ties with North Korea could have caused anxiety among potential defectors like Jo.

“North Korea reacts sensitively to any defections of its top officials amid concerns that they may leak secret information of the regime’s leadership,” Lee Min-Hyung wrote for The Korea Times. “On top of that, continuous reports on North Korean defectors aggravate the image of the North at a time when the international society intensifies pressure on the regime for its human rights abuses.”

The U.S. State Department declined to confirm Jan. 4 reports by Italian media which said Jo had expressed hopes to settle in the U.S.

The 44-year-old North Korean diplomat has been missing with his family since early November. Jo’s specific whereabouts remain unknown.

If confirmed Jo’s would be the first high-profile defection of a North Korean diplomat since 2016 when the then deputy ambassador to London, Thae Yong Ho, left his post and brought his family to Seoul.

Jo’s wife graduated from a medical school in Pyongyang, and both families have enjoyed life as members of the North’s “wealthy, prestigious elite”, according to Thae, who added that the couple have one child.

Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang, as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organization. North Koreans not living in elite urban centers have endured famines and international food aid is frequently diverted to the military.

Thae urged Jo to travel to Seoul.

In an open letter posted to his blog on Jan. 5, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom said Jo and other North Korean diplomats should defect to South Korea for the unification of the two Koreas.

“The (South Korean) government will guarantee thorough security if you come to the South,” Thae said.

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