Thae Yong Ho, who fled his post as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UK in 2016, said Jo Song Gil, a former envoy to Rome, “wasn’t able to leave Italy with his children and North Korea has summoned his children back to North Korea.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Thae said a source in Pyongyang “told me that Jo’s daughter was in North Korea under state custody,” which he said explained Jo’s disappearance since he fled the Rome embassy late last year.
“Today, Jo cannot reveal where he is or engage in public activity because he must fear safety of his daughter,” Thae said. He added that while he had previously urged Jo to join him in Seoul, he would no longer advocate this, as “the level of punishment against family left behind of diplomats who defected to South Korea or to the US are very different.”
“I couldn’t keep up the demand that Jo come to South Korea since I found out that Jo’s daughter is in North Korea,” he said.
In a statement, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, “and that their daughter, having requested to return to her country to her grandparents, had returned there on November 14, 2018, accompanied by female staff from the Embassy.”
There are around 30,000 North Korean defectors and refugees registered with the South Korean government.
While many defectors integrate into South Korean society and do not take part in politics, a substantial minority work to encourage and assist others to leave the North, and some are also involved in anti-Pyongyang activities and propaganda organizations, several of which were represented at the press conference Wednesday.
Such groups have been criticized in the past for undermining the peace process and antagonizing Pyongyang, particularly those which seek to transmit anti-regime propaganda into the North. For their part, many defector groups criticize the South Korean government for downplaying human rights concerns in its communications with North Korean officials.
The former deputy ambassador has also urged other leading officials to abandon Pyongyang.
The costs for defecting to South Korea can be very high, with numerous reports of the left-behind family members of defectors being punished, and pressure put on them to convince their relatives to return to North Korea.
A new report released this week, by the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC), a Seoul-based think tank founded by North Korean defectors, claimed Kim has executed or purged hundreds of officials since taking office, including members of the elite and military.
CNN could not independently confirm the contents of the report. Goings on within North Korea, particularly that involve the country’s political system, are notoriously opaque and difficult to read, even for experts. Officials previously reported to have been executed have turned up alive, and confident predictions about Kim’s policies have turned out to be false.
The report claimed hundreds of high-ranking officials have been executed since Kim came to power, while 38 officials have been purged. NKSC said its findings were based on interviews with 14 high-ranking defectors, five other defectors, and six North Korean officials on trips to China, the country’s closest ally.
Tight grip on power
Kim also hailed the “historic, first-ever (North Korea)-US summit meeting and talks brought about a dramatic turn in the bilateral relationship which was the most hostile on the earth.”
The North Korean leader will meet with the US President a second time next week, in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, as both Kim and Trump look to recapture the energy of their first meeting in Singapore, with negotiations on North Korean denuclearization and a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War stalling.
CNN’s James Griffiths, Yoonjung Seo and Kevin Liptak contributed reporting.