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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy went into hiding with his wife in November, South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul on Thursday.
A high-profile defection by one of North Korea's elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a player in international geopolitics.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul's National Intelligence Service shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim Min-ki did not say whether the spy agency revealed any information about diplomat Jo Song Gil's current whereabouts or whether he had plans to defect to South Korea.
The NIS earlier said it couldn't confirm a South Korean media report that Jo was under the protection of the Italian government as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.
Kim Min-ki said the NIS official said Jo and his wife left the official residence in early November, weeks before his term was to end.
Speaking to NBC News, Kim Min-ki said it was unclear whether Jo "disappeared with any other additional family members or not."
Jo, 48, had been Pyongyang's acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in September 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test.
North Korea has not yet commented on Jo's status.
A representative of the Italian Embassy in Seoul, which is also responsible for North Korea affairs, did not have any immediate comment.
North Korea, which touts itself in its propaganda as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.
The last senior North Korean diplomat known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, who defected to South Korea in 2016.
North Korea described Thae as "human scum" and claimed he was trying to escape punishment for serious crimes.