Kim Min-ki told reporters after a closed-door meeting with South Korean intelligence officials on Thursday that the acting Ambassador, Jo Song Gil, disappeared with his wife and children.
“Acting Ambassador Jo Song Gil’s term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November,” he said.
The spy agency briefing to MPs came after South Korea‘s JoongAng Ilbo daily reported that Jo had sought asylum in an unidentified Western country with his family.
“He sought asylum early last month,” the JoongAng quoted a diplomatic source in Seoul as saying.
The report said the 48-year-old, who is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime”, was in a “safe place” with his family under the protection of the Italian government.
Most North Korean diplomats serving overseas are normally required to leave several family members – typically children – behind in Pyongyang to prevent their defection while working abroad.
Jo, however, came to Rome in May 2015 with his wife and children, suggesting he may be from a privileged family, the JoongAng said, adding the reason for his defection bid was still unclear.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House said earlier on Thursday it had no knowledge of the matter.
A representative of the Italian embassy in Seoul, which is also responsible for North Korea affairs, did not have any immediate comment.
Later on Thursday, a source close to the Italian foreign ministry told the AFP news agency that Rome was not aware of any asylum request from the diplomat.
The source said the ministry had simply received a request for the “replacement” of Jo.
Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages.
The last senior North Korean diplomat to defect was Thae Yong Ho, who abandoned his post as deputy ambassador in London in 2016.
Source: News Agencies