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.
Thae Yong-ho abandoned his post in 2016, along with his wife and children. He defected to South Korea.
As one of the highest-ranking officials to ever defect from the North, his move was seen as a blow to Kim Jong-un’s regime. He would go on to urge the world to spread information in North Korea to undermine Mr Kim’s status among his people.
Speaking after a briefing from the spy agency on Thursday, Kim Min-ki, a government MP, told reporters that Mr Jo went into hiding more than a month ago.
“Acting ambassador Jo Song-gil’s term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November,” the MP said.
Mr Jo’s wife is believed to be with him.
Italy’s foreign ministry has told the BBC that it has no record of an asylum request made by Mr Jo.
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,