|Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho speaks to reporters in Seoul, Wednesday. He called on the governments of South Korea, Italy and the United States to make all-out efforts to protect his ex-colleague Jo Song-gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome who has been in hiding in Italy since November. Yonhap|
By Park Si-soo
With the disappearance of Jo and his family considered a move to seek asylum, Thae Yong-ho also urged the three countries to "check their intentions to come to South Korea within a safe and free environment."
"We call upon the Korean government to urge the Italian government to provide protection to Jo Song-gil and his family, and within a safe, free environment, check their intentions to come to Korea," Thae told reporters in Seoul, Wednesday.
He also urged the Italian government to provide them with "all the conditions needed" to go to the country of their choice, in accordance with international law and the spirit of humanity.
Thae criticized the South Korean government for taking a "nonchalant approach" to the issue, in what he claims to be an effort to keep the hard-won reconciliatory mood with North Korea intact, especially before the possible second summit between the North's leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, which the latter said will take place in the "not-too-distant future."
"At this moment it is not certain whether Jo Song-gil and his family are receiving the appropriate security protection from the Italian government and whether they have been able to depart on their path to seek asylum in light of the current inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean relations," Thae said.
|Thae Yong-ho and other members of the "Citizens' Coalition in Support for North Korean Diplomat Jo Song-gil and his Family's Journey" to South Korea raise their fists in a show of support for Jo and his family. Yonhap|
Jo and his family are said to be holed up somewhere in Italy. With various rumors circulating, an Italian newspaper said they are under the Italian government's protection, while another report raised the possibility they have escaped to the U.S. or U.K with the CIA's help. The CIA has not commented.
Thae said he would play his role until their safety and country of settlement are confirmed. To that end, he has launched an ad-hoc coalition with like-minded influential people ― the "Citizens' Coalition in Support for North Korean Diplomat Jo Song-gil and his Family's Journey to South Korea." Its members include former National Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-yong, Free North Korea Radio Director Kim Seong-min and former lawmaker Chung Dae-chul.
"Nothing is known as to why Jo went into hiding," Thae said. "My assumption is that he might have been sick and tired of North Korea's regime after experiencing the freedom of the external world. Another one may be for his children. Like me, he has children. As a father, he wouldn't have wanted to take his children back to a country that allows no freedom."
Jo and his family vanished when the deadline for his return to Pyongyang was imminent.
Thae said they ― if in hiding ― would be experiencing constant fear over the possibility North Korean agents might find them.
"South Korea should be active in dealing with the issue," Thae said. "Tens of thousands of overseas North Koreans are taking a close look at how South Korea handles this. They are our people. If South Korea wants reunification (of the two Koreas), it should take a step forward and embrace them with open arms, or reunification would be left as a permanent mission impossible."
At one point in the press briefing, Thae, in the capacity of Jo's friend, said: "My friend Song-gil. Don't worry. If you are left unsecure, we will urge the (South Korean) embassy in Italy and the Italian government to provide proper protection measures. We will do everything we can in order to give you the feeling of being secure. I will respect whatever decision you make, but please don't forget South Korea, another of your motherland."