A South Korean army solider walks past a television screen showing an image of Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, center, during a news broadcast on North Korea’s ballistic missile launch at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

North Korea Spy Case Grips Italy, With Alleged Kidnapping

(Bloomberg) -- Allegations that North Korean spies kidnapped the daughter of an ambassador after his defection are gripping Italy, with the fractious populist coalition at loggerheads over the case.

The controversy focuses on Jo Song Gil, the former North Korean envoy to Rome, who disappeared in November while working in the capital, according to Italian newspapers. The ambassador has defected and is seeking political asylum, Corriere della Sera cited Thae Yong Ho as saying. He is a former senior envoy to London who has turned dissident.

In retaliation for Jo’s alleged betrayal, his 17-year-old daughter has been forced to return to Pyongyang by a special squad of North Korean intelligence services, newspaper La Stampa said, also citing Thae.

Italy’s foreign ministry said in an emailed statement Wednesday that Jo and his wife left the embassy in Rome on Nov. 10, citing a Dec. 5 notification from the North Korean embassy.

Spy Novel

La Stampa called the affair “a pure spy-story, which would have fascinated Le Carre,” a reference to the famous British author of espionage novels.

“The daughter, having asked to return to her country and to her grandparents, had returned there on 14 November 2018, accompanied by female embassy staff,” the ministry said.

The affair has pitted Italy’s coalition allies, the anti-immigration League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, against each other. Five Star lawmakers demanded that Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini, who is also interior minister and head of the League, should brief lawmakers.

“The affair of Jo Song Gil and his daughter, kidnapped by North Korean intelligence in Italy, if confirmed, would be a case of unprecedented gravity and who is responsible must pay,” said Five Star’s Manlio Di Stefano, under-secretary at the Rome foreign ministry.

Salvini dodged the issue Thursday. “Ask the foreign ministry, it’s an issue involving embassies. I didn’t know anything about it, I have nothing to do with it,” Salvini told RAI radio.

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