Thae Young Ho, a former North Korean diplomat in London who took refuge in Seoul in 2016, told reporters Tuesday that the 17-year-old girl had been forcibly sent back to North Korea before she could join her parents, who went into hiding in November.
Thae said the information came from an unidentified friend in North Korean capital Pyongyang. Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said "we're carrying out the necessary checks" and that his ministry is "following the affair."
Describing the case as "delicate," he indicated that Italy's relevant "services" — the term often used to refer to Italy's intelligence services — were also following the case. In South Korea, the spy agency told lawmakers last month that the acting North Korean ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, had gone into hiding with his wife in November, as his posting was approaching its end.
Jo's disappearance raised the possibility of the defection of a senior North Korean official. Italian state television reported that their daughter had been attending high school while in Italy. Italian foreign affairs undersecretary Manlio Di Stefano said that if it turns out that Jo's daughter "was kidnapped by North Korean intelligence (agents) in Italy, it would be a case if unprecedented gravity."
An Amnesty International spokesman in Rome, Riccardo Noury, called the case extremely worrying. "Italian authorities must provide clarifications," he tweeted. Maovero's ministry later issued a statement saying that the North Korean embassy in Rome had informed it on Dec. 5 that the daughter had requested to join her grandparents in North Korea, and that she had returned accompanied by embassy staff on Nov. 14.
Italy's foreign ministry said Jo had not requested asylum from the Italian government, but did not provide further information about the case. Di Stefano cited the 2013 case of the illegitimate deportation of the wife and young daughter of a Kazakh dissident banker from their home in Rome. A top Italian police official, several police officers and an immigration official have been ordered to stand trial for their roles in that case.
Tong-hyung Kim contributed from Seoul.