A lawmaker from the Republic of Korea (ROK) on Thursday said the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) acting ambassador to Italy went into hiding with his wife, adding that he had the information from ROK's spy agency.
"Acting ambassador Jo Song Gil's term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November with his wife," lawmaker Kim Min-ki told reporters.
Another member of the ROK's parliament, Lee Eun-jae, told reporters that the National Intelligence Service (NIS) had confirmed the envoy had sought asylum, but did not appear to know his whereabouts.
The NIS briefing to lawmakers came after ROK'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. "Italian authorities were "agonizing" over what to do, the official was cited as saying, but added that they were "protecting him in a safe place."
A source close to the Italian foreign ministry told reporters on Thursday that the country had "no knowledge" of any asylum request from Jo. The source said the ministry had simply received a request for the "replacement" of the diplomat, but did not know Jo's whereabouts, adding that the replacement had arrived in Rome.
Jo Song Gil, 48, has been acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled the then ambassador Mun Jong Nam in protest at a DPRK's nuclear test a month earlier in violation of UN resolutions.
Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang, as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the DPRK suffers from chronic food shortages.