Western diplomats and Jo Song Gil's former North Korean colleagues were surprised by his disappearance © AP

North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy has picked a bad time for his apparent defection, given the efforts in Pyongyang and Washington to jump-start the stalled nuclear talks.

Jo Song Gil is from a prestigious diplomatic family and would have crucial information on how the North Korean regime operates. But if the 44-year-old diplomat is seeking asylum, he is unlikely to be welcome in the US or South Korea. Experts said Washington and Seoul would be reluctant to spoil the diplomatic mood.

Mr Jo, in hiding since November, has probably moved to a third country in the west, according to analysts. That would be an embarrassment to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un whose more recent active diplomacy seeks to portray him as head of a normal state.

“I do pity the North Korean ambassador to Italy for having a terrible sense of timing as to when to defect. He will not be welcomed by the South,” tweeted Remco Breuker, professor at Leiden University. “But if he was about to be recalled to Pyongyang he may not have felt to have a choice in the matter. If indeed he is in hiding.”

The embassy in Rome is important for the North Korean regime, said experts, because it handles annual negotiations on food aid with the World Food Programme based in the Italian capital. More importantly, it has been a hub for smuggling luxury goods for the North Korean elite.

Although North Korea touts itself as a socialist paradise, the impoverished communist state has seen more of its diplomats and elites flee its oppressive system in recent years. Mr Jo’s defection comes at a sensitive time as North Korea tries to open up for economic development through nuclear talks with the outside world. 

“Mr Jo’s defection throws cold water on Pyongyang’s recent attempt to reach out to the world,” said Shin Beom-chul, a researcher at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies. “It is a political blow for Mr Kim as it shows North Korea’s elites are unhappy with the country’s oppressive system. But Washington and Seoul would prefer to remain silent about the case.” 

Western diplomats and Mr Jo’s former North Korean colleagues were surprised by his disappearance. He is from a wealthy family of diplomats, his father and father-in-law both serving as ambassadors. 

Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to Britain who defected with his family to South Korea in 2016, had once worked with Mr Jo in the same department of the North’s foreign ministry in Pyongyang.

He said Mr Jo and his wife, who graduated from a medical school in Pyongyang, lived in the “nicest apartment” in the North Korean capital. 

“I worked with him for so long but never imagined that he would seek asylum,” Mr Thae told Seoul’s cable news Channel A. “The news shocked me.” 

Mr Jo, who studied in Italy in 2006-09, was assigned to the Italian embassy in May 2015 and became the acting ambassador in October 2017. He is known to be fluent in Italian and French as well as English. 

Mr Thae said that Mr Jo may have handled talks with the Vatican over a possible visit of Pope Francis to Pyongyang. Mr Kim told South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year that he would welcome a papal visit. 

Mr Jo was allowed to take his child to Rome, said Mr Thae, unlike most other North Korean diplomats who are forced to leave their children in Pyongyang. He called this practice a “hostage” scheme and said there were some exceptions for those from the top echelons and who are believed to be the most loyal to the regime. 

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