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In major embarrassment to Kim Jong Un, North Korea's ambassador to Italy defects

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The defection occurred just weeks before his term was supposed to end

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Just weeks before he was scheduled to return home, North Korea's ambassador to Italy has deserted his post and is now in hiding along with his wife.

What's the story?

Jo Song Gil has been the North Korean ambassador to Italy since October 2017. The embassy is crucial to North Korea because the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which supplies the impoverished country with food aid, meets there. He reportedly defected at some point in November, as his term was coming to an end.

The news came from a report prepared by South Korea's spy agency for lawmakers. The South Korean JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Jo had applied for asylum in a Western country and that the Italian government was currently protecting him. Speaking with the Telegraph, the Italian government denied that Jo had applied for asylum in Italy.

Reuters quoted South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki, who said he had been briefed on the situation, but could not say anything more than confirming that Jo and his wife had "left the diplomatic mission and vanished."

Defections from North Korea are not uncommon, but Jo is a rare high-ranking official to defect. Jo's late father was the head of North Korea's Organisation and Guidance Department. That agency's mission is "completely implementing the teachings and decisions of the Great Leader." His father-in-law was the consul general in Hong Kong during the 2000s. Jo's family, like the families of other defectors from North Korea, could face repercussions for his actions.

What else?

In 2016, Thae Yong-ho, a former minister at North Korea's embassy in London, defected. The North Korean government was quick to brand him as "human scum" for his betrayal and accused him of defecting only to escape punishment for crimes he had committed.

Thae told the cable news station Channel A in Seoul that he had "worked with Jo in the same department at Pyongyang's foreign ministry for so long but never imagined that he would seek asylum."

Thai also said that Jo had at least one child who was with him and his wife at the Italian Embassy.

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