Daughter of defecting North Korean envoy was caught and forced to return home, says defector

SEOUL (AFP) – A North Korean diplomat who reportedly defected from his embassy in Rome last year has been separated from his daughter after she was forcefully repatriated to Pyongyang, an ex-colleague who has now settled in the South said on Tuesday (Feb 19).

Jo Song Gil, who went into hiding with his wife and is reportedly seeking asylum, “could not manage to get his daughter to join them”, said Thae Yong Ho, who also fled his post as the North’s deputy ambassador to Britain in August 2016.

Thae last month urged the Korean government to protect Jo and wrote an open letter asking him to come to the South so “they can work together to help the two Koreas reunify”.

But Thae told reporters in Seoul he could no longer urge Jo to join him in the South after he learnt through a friend that the girl, thought to be a high school student, had been forced to return to North Korea.

“The amount of punishment that is imposed to those whose family members fled to South Korea is incomparable to those whose family fled to other countries,” he said.

Jo, who is in his 40s and known to be fluent in French and Italian as well as English, came to Rome in 2015.

He was appointed acting ambassador in October 2017, after Italy expelled his predecessor Mun Jong Nam to protest a nuclear test staged by Pyongyang.

South Korean media said Jo’s daughter had lived with her parents in Rome before the defection and that she had been caught by North Korean authorities before she could join them in hiding.

It was unclear how she was returned to her home country.

Italy is an important diplomatic mission for Pyongyang as it handles relations with the Rome-headquartered UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages.

About 30,000 North Koreans have fled repression and poverty under the communist regime and settled in the capitalist South, mostly by secretly crossing over the porous border with China.

Since defecting and resettling in Seoul, Thae has publicly discussed his impoverished but nuclear-armed former homeland and means of reconciling the two neighbours, which technically remain at war.

Ahead of the second US-North Korea summit next week, Thae also castigated US President Donald Trump for falling into North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “trap”, adding that North Korea had not posed a real threat of war.

Trump made a “significant, strategic mistake” even before the his first summit with Kim in Singapore last year by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” in his 2017 UN speech, Thae said.

At the time no threat of war existed between Pyongyang and the US, he added.

“(Trump) made the international community think that it was possible for the US and North Korea to have a nuclear war,” he continued.

“That’s what Kim Jong Un wanted. (The speech) allowed the world to agree to talk about peace first, not the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” .

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