South Korea’s spy agency has told officials that North Korea’s ambassador to Italy has disappeared.
The announcement follows unconfirmed reports that Pyongyang’s top diplomat in Italy had sought asylum from an unidentified Western country.
Jo Song-gil, the acting North Korean ambassador to Rome, is believed to be the son or son-in-law of one of the highest level officials in North Korea.
The last senior diplomat to defect was the deputy ambassador in London.
Thae Yong-ho abandoned his post in 2016, along with his wife and children. He defected to South Korea.
As one of the highest-ranking officials to ever defect from the North, his move was seen as a blow to Kim Jong-un’s regime. He would go on to urge the world to spread information in North Korea to undermine Mr Kim’s status among his people.
Speaking after a briefing from the spy agency on Thursday, Kim Min-ki, a government MP, told reporters that Mr Jo fled the Rome embassy more than a month ago.
“Acting ambassador Jo Song-gil’s term was ending in late November last year and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November,” the MP said.
South Korean’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers they had not had any contact from him since then. The agency would not confirm that he is trying to defect to another country.
Mr Jo’s wife is believed to be with him.
Italy’s foreign ministry has told the BBC that it has no record of an asylum request made by Mr Jo.
Diplomatic sources said the last Italy heard of him was when officials received a note last year from the North Korean government saying that Mr Jo was being replaced.
South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo has reported that Mr Jo is in a “safe place” with his family, citing a diplomatic source.
Mr Jo, 48, has been acting ambassador in Rome since October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong-nam in protest over a North Korean nuclear test a month earlier.
North Korea’s diplomatic mission in Italy is important for Pyongyang as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is based in Rome and North Korea often suffers from chronic food shortages.
North Korean diplomats stationed abroad usually have to leave several family members behind in Pyongyang to prevent their defection.
But Mr Jo is thought to have been in Rome with his wife and children, suggesting he may be from a privileged or influential family.
North Korean representatives overseas are said to be closely watched by their fellow diplomats for any sign of disloyalty to the regime.