Seoul will investigate the disclosure of the fact that a senior North Korean diplomat, who went missing in 2018, has been living under the South’s protection. The leak puts at risk his teen daughter, who remains in the North.

Jo Song-gil served as Pyongyang’s acting ambassador to Italy before mysteriously disappearing in November 2018, along with his wife. This week, it was reported that the couple have been secretly living in South Korea since July last year. This makes him the highest-ranking defector to the South since 1997, and the only ambassador-level diplomat to flee North Korea under its current leader, Kim Jong-un.

#Roma, il giallo della scomparsa di Jo Song-gil, ambasciatore della #CoreadelNord. Il diplomatico ha fatto perdere le proprie tracce da novembre e avrebbe chiesto asilo politico all’#Italia, ma la #Farnesina smentisce. Al #Tg2rai ore 20,30

The former official’s whereabouts were reported by the South Korean media on Tuesday and confirmed later in the day by opposition lawmaker Ha Tae-keung. In a Facebook post, which he said was meant to prevent a media frenzy, the member of the parliamentary intelligence committee acknowledged that Jo and his wife had indeed arrived in South Korea in July 2019, after multiple requests on his part.

It was kept secret from the public because Jo was afraid for his family remaining in North Korea, the lawmaker said. The fathers of both the diplomat and his wife were part of the northern elite before the couple’s defection. Their underage daughter was repatriated from Italy after the disappearance of her parents.

Korean culture holds elders in a family accountable for the misdeeds of the younger members. Pyongyang has a record of retaliating against relatives of defectors, with those fleeing to its southern rival rather than a third country more likely to suffer serious consequences.

After the story was confirmed by government officials, the ruling liberal Democratic Party was accused of deliberately leaking the information to distract the public from the killing of a southern fisheries official by the North’s soldiers last month.

The gruesome case elicited a rare apology from Pyongyang, but remains a hot-button topic in Seoul. The government of President Moon Jae-in made rapprochement with the North a key policy after taking power from the conservatives, who took a contrasting confrontational approach towards Pyongyang.

“Our government does not intentionally use such an issue or use the release of such information politically, as some news reports do,” Unification Minister Lee In-young said Thursday, responding to the accusations. He promised a thorough investigation into the origins of the leak.

Jo’s path from Italy to South Korea remains a mystery, with officials in Seoul saying only that he and his wife had arrived through a third country. Local media outlets say the couple unsuccessfully sought political asylum in France and Switzerland before turning to South Korea.

The circumstances of his disappearance remain murky as well. Speculation is rife that the shady anti-Pyongyang group Free Joseon may have been involved. The group infamously took credit for the February 2019 raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid, during which embassy workers were beaten and computers with presumably sensitive information stolen from the premises.

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