South Korea’s spy agency has told officials that North Korea’s ambassador to Italy has gone into hiding.
The announcement follows unconfirmed reports that Pyongyang’s top diplomat in Italy had sought asylum from an unidentified Western country.
Jo Song-gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, is believed to be the son or son-in-law of one of the highest level officials in North Korea.
The last senior diplomat to defect was the deputy ambassador in London.
In 2016, deputy ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong-ho, abandoned his post, along with his wife and children.
Speaking after a briefing from the spy agency on Thursday, Kim Min-ki, a government MP, told reporters: “Acting ambassador Jo Song-gil’s term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November.”
Mr Jo’s wife is believed to be with him
Mr Jo, 48, has been acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong-nam in protest over a North Korean nuclear test a month earlier.
North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Italy is important for Pyongyang as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is based in Rome and North Korea often suffers from chronic food shortages.
North Korean diplomats stationed abroad usually have to leave several family members behind in Pyongyang to prevent their defection.
But Mr Jo is thought to have been in Rome with his wife and children, suggesting he may be from a privileged or influential family.