The news came from South Korea's spy agency, which briefed lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday on the status of North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil. It said he went into hiding with his wife in November before his posting to Italy ended late that month.
A high-profile defection by one of North Korea's elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a geopolitical player.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul's National Intelligence Service shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim did not say whether the spy agency revealed anything about Jo's current whereabouts or whether he had plans to defect to South Korea.
Kim said the NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo. According to Kim, the NIS official said Jo and his wife left the official residence in early November, weeks before his term was to end. Kim said he couldn't confirm if the NIS official revealed whether Jo and his wife were accompanied by any children. The NIS earlier said it couldn't confirm a South Korean media report that Jo was under Italian government protection as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.
North Korea has not yet commented on Jo's status. An official with the Italian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Jo hadn't requested asylum from Italy. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with standard practice, also said Jo no longer held diplomatic status in Italy, presumably since his assignment had ended.
Without citing any sources, Italian daily La Repubblica raised the possibility that while the Foreign Ministry was saying Jo hadn't sought asylum from Italy, that didn't rule out that the North Korean might have turned to other offices, such as Italian intelligence agencies for "assistance from Italy in order not to return to his country."
North Korea, which touts itself as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.
About 30,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, according to South Korean government figures. Many defectors have said they wanted to leave North Korea's harsh political system and widespread poverty. North Korea often accuses the South of deceiving or paying people to defect, or claims that they have been kidnapped.
North Korea may publicly ignore Jo's possible defection or hold back harsh criticism to avoid highlighting the vulnerability of its government as it tries to engage Washington and Seoul in negotiations, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Jo had been North Korea's acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in October 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test and long-range missile launch. Jo seemed comfortable moving around Italy. In March 2018, accompanied by another embassy official, Pak Myong Gil, he visited two factories in Italy's northeastern Veneto region with an eye on eventual trade, according to La Tribuna di Treviso, a local daily.
One factory produced bathroom furnishings and another made accessories from marble. The newspaper quoted the local businessmen as assuming at first the delegation consisted of South Koreans, not North Koreans, given the economic sanctions against North Korea.
Among the Italians accompanying the North Koreans was a former Italian senator for what is now the League party, which in general opposes economic embargoes as bad for business. The politician, Valentino Perin, told AP he had spoken with Jo many times, including about preparations for the visit to the Veneto region. Perin said he last met with Jo on Sept. 5, at an official reception organized by the North Korean embassy in Rome.
Showing Jo's business card, Perin said the North Korean was "very proud of his people and of his country. The last senior North Korean diplomat known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, who fled to South Korea in 2016.
In an interview on South Korean television, Thae said he worked with Jo for more than a decade in the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Europe bureau and that Jo had a child when Thae last saw him in 2013.
Thae said Jo comes from a family of diplomats, with his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors. The embassy in Italy is critical for North Korea because it handles annual negotiations with the Rome-based World Food Program over aid to North Korea, Thae said. He also said Italy has been a hub for smuggling luxury items to the North Korean elite, and Jo would have been involved in those activities.
Thae said Jo would have been North Korea's main diplomat for the Vatican and would have also handled discussions involving a possible visit to the North by Pope Francis if such talks had taken place. South Korea said in October that North Korean leader Kim mentioned during a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he would welcome a papal visit.
Thae said he believes Jo was to be replaced by incoming ambassador Kim Chon in November but did not reveal how he obtained such information. While not identifying him by name, North Korea's state media described Thae as "human scum" after his defection in London, and claimed he was trying to escape punishment for serious crimes. Thae, who has been an outspoken critic of Kim while living in South Korea, denied the accusation and said he defected because he didn't want his children to live "miserable" lives in the North.
It's possible that Jo is trying to defect because of similar reasons, said Koh, a policy adviser for South Korea's president. "It could be difficult for some diplomats to accept being called back to the North after enjoying years living in the free West. They could want their children to live in a different system and receive better education," he told The Associated Press.
The highest-level North Korean to seek asylum in South Korea is Hwang Jang-yop, a senior ruling Workers' Party official who once tutored Kim Jong Un's late father, dictator Kim Jong Il. Hwang's 1997 defection was hailed by many South Koreans as an intelligence bonanza. Hwang died in 2010.
Also in 1997, the North Korean ambassador to Egypt fled and resettled in the United States.
Kim Tong-Hyung reported from Seoul.