Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected in 2016, said he worked with acting North Korean Ambassador to Italy Jo Song Gil for more than a decade at North Korea's Foreign Ministry.
Thae said in an interview with South Korean TV on Thursday that the Italian embassy was critical for North Korea because it handled negotiations with the World Food Program over food aid to the North and was a hub for smuggling luxury items to the North Korean elite.
South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday that Jo went into hiding with his wife in November before his term in Italy ended. His whereabouts are not publicly known now.
The Italian Foreign Ministry says the envoy who had been North Korea's acting ambassador in Rome has not asked Italian authorities for asylum.
South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday that North Korean diplomat Jo Song Gil went into hiding with his wife in November before his term in Italy ended. His whereabouts are not publicly known now.
Italy on Thursday noted that it had been notified in the past that Jo's spell as a diplomat in Italy had ended and thus he no longer held any diplomatic position in Italy.
It wasn't immediately clear if the diplomat might have sought asylum from another country's embassy or consulate in Italy.
Ministry officials spoke to The Associated Press under their customary rules of anonymity on delicate matters.
— By Frances D'Emilio in Rome.
South Korea says North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, went into hiding with his wife in November.
South Korea's spy agency told the information to lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday.
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 player in international geopolitics.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul's National Intelligence Service shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim said the NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo.
North Korea has not yet commented on Jo's status.
About 30,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.