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News of North Korean diplomat defecting stokes concerns about teen daughter

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean lawmakers and officials raised concerns on Wednesday about the safety of the teenage daughter of a former senior North Korean diplomat in Italy after news reports that he has settled in South Korea while she was sent back to the North.

Jo Song Gil, who was North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in November 2018.

His whereabouts had been unknown since, but a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee on Tuesday confirmed news reports that Jo arrived in South Korea in July 2019 under the protection of the government.

The reports triggered concerns among some lawmakers about Jo’s daughter, who according to Italy’s foreign ministry, was repatriated to the North at her request after her parents went missing. She is a teenager, but no other details about her were immediately known.

Thae Yong-ho, Pyongyang’s former deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016, had publicly asked Jo to come to the South but urged restraint in media coverage of him.

“Where a defected diplomat lives determines the levels of treatment or punishment to be given to his relatives left in the North,” said Thae, who is now a lawmaker.

“If he takes asylum in South Korea, he is defined as a traitor, apostate. ... And no one knows what penalties would be imposed on the family members of a traitor.”

Cho Tae-yong, another opposition lawmaker and former deputy national security advisor, accused the government of leaking the information even though Jo had not wanted his defection to be publicly known because of his daughter.

“It was impossible to know without help from intelligence authorities and the government effectively confirmed it, which was an act that completely lacked humanitarian considerations regarding his daughter,” Cho told a parliamentary session.

The National Intelligence Service declined comment.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at the session she was “surprised” to see the news and shared the lawmakers’ concerns about the safety of Jo’s daughter.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan