A high-ranking North Korean diplomat defected several weeks ago in Italy, according to information gathered by the South Korean intelligence service.
The current whereabouts of Jo Song Gil, the charge d'affaires of the North Korean embassy in Rome, and his wife are unknown, South Korean lawmaker Kim Min Ki said on Thursday, according to local media reports.
The intelligence service informed him and other lawmakers of the development behind closed doors, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
The couple have been unaccounted for since early November, it said. The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo had previously reported that 48-year-old Jo applied for asylum in a third country for him and his family in December.
The move reportedly came after he was ordered back to North Korea.
A spokeswoman from South Korea's Unification Ministry said the country is looking into the report but that the country's authorities have not been able to confirm it.
Jo had run his country's Italian mission since October 2017, when Italy expelled ambassador Mun Jong Nam following North Korea's sixth nuclear test.
Should his application be confirmed, it would be the highest-level defection of a North Korean diplomat since 2016, when the deputy ambassador to London defected to South Korea.
According to JoongAng Ilbo, Jo and his wife are currently in the care of Italian authorities.
It is unclear whether they want to go to South Korea. The newspaper said they have made no contact with the government in Seoul.
According to sources from the Italian Foreign Ministry, the ministry was informed about a change in embassy personnel "at the time." There has been no asylum application from a high-ranking diplomat in recent weeks.
The ministry would not confirm whether Jo is still in Rome.
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