A group of prominent North Korean defectors called on the Italian and South Korean governments to provide protection for Pyongyang's former envoy to Italy Wednesday, as his whereabouts remain unknown.
Jo Song Gil, Pyongyang's chargé d'affaires in Rome, disappeared along with his wife in early November. His term was due to expire that month.
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Italy has been without a North Korean ambassador since Pyongyang's former envoy was expelled in 2017, following the country's sixth nuclear test. Jo joined the embassy in May 2015 as the third secretary, according to South Korean lawmakers.
According to unconfirmed reports in the South Korean press, Jo has defected and is seeking asylum in the West.
"Jo Song Gil and his family have the freedom to choose their place of asylum, and since they are the natural Korean citizens, they deserve the right to be protected by the (South) Korean government," Thae Yong-ho, Pyongyang's former deputy envoy to the United Kingdom who defected in 2016, said Wednesday at a press conference in Seoul.
"We call upon the Italian government to provide Jo Song Gil and his family all the conditions needed to go to the country of their choice, in accordance with international law and the spirit of humanity. In the case that Jo Song Gil and his family want to come to Korea, we urge the Korean government to take a proactive stance in providing safe journey to Korea."
Thae was joined by several prominent former politicians and critics of North Korea, including Park Kwan-yong, a former speaker of the South Korean National Assembly under the conservative, anti-Pyongyang administration of President Park Geun-hye.
Conservative and hard-right figures in South Korea have criticized the government of President Moon Jae-in for allegedly ignoring human rights in his push for the denuclearization of North Korea.
"South Korea needs to show that it is willing to embrace North Koreans, but the current situation doesn't seem to do that," Thae said.
"Neither the South Korean government or its citizens express their intention to rescue Jo and his family after their defection, and I'm saddened by the current situation."
Thae -- one of the highest-ranking North Korean officials to defect to the South in recent years -- said it was impossible for diplomats to discuss their intentions to seek asylum with anyone else beforehand.
"There is no way of knowing who is a spy and who is reliable. It is unthinkable to discuss defection in advance with anyone," he said.
He added that while he was unaware of Jo's whereabouts, "I know he needs to be protected wherever he is."
"I'm not happy about the current attitude of the South Korean government. I want the government to publicly say that it is ready to take Jo if he wants to come to South Korea," Thae said. "The current attitude of denying any knowledge is not helpful."
For his own case, Thae said a desire to defect came about partly for the sake of his children and their education.
"The children having lived overseas know what human rights is and what rights you can have in the Western world," he said.
Wednesday marks the second public attempt by Thae and other defectors to reach Jo.
In an open letter to the former diplomat last week, Thae said he hoped that if Jo came to Seoul, "more of our colleagues will follow after us and come to Seoul, and then the unification will happen on its own."
"When you come to South Korea, you do not have to worry about personal safety. To protect me, several security guards stick closely and guard me every day," Thae wrote. "The country also provides rental housing and resettlement funds until you safely settle down."
There are around 30,000 North Korean defectors and refugees registered with the South Korean government.
While many defectors integrate into South Korean society and do not take part in politics, a substantial minority work to encourage and assist others to leave the North, and some are also involved in anti-Pyongyang activities and propaganda organizations, several of which were represented at the press conference Wednesday.
Such groups have been criticized in the past for undermining the peace process and antagonizing Pyongyang, particularly those which seek to transmit anti-regime propaganda into the North. For their part, many defector groups criticize the South Korean government for downplaying human rights concerns in its communications with North Korean officials.