By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - A former North Korean diplomat who staged a high-profile defection to the South on Saturday urged an old colleague who has gone missing in Italy to defect to Seoul, following a report that he was seeking asylum in the United States.
Jo Song Gil, the 44-year-old who was until recently North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, disappeared with his wife after leaving the embassy without notice in early November, South Korean lawmakers said on Thursday.
Jo has sought asylum in the United States and is under the protection of Italian intelligence, Italy's La Repubblica newspaper said on Friday, citing an unidentified diplomatic source.
The State Department and the U.S. embassy in Seoul did not immediately respond to a query from Reuters.
In an open letter, Thae Yong Ho, Pyongyang's former deputy ambassador to Britain, who said he went to the same university and worked with Jo before defecting to South Korea in 2016, urged Jo to follow in his footsteps.
To defect to the South is an "obligation, not a choice" for North Korean diplomats committed to unification, Thae said, calling Seoul "the outpost" for that task.
"If you come to South Korea, the day when our suffering colleagues and North Korean citizens are liberated from the fetters would be moved forward," Thae said in the letter released on his website.
"If you come to Seoul, even more of our colleagues would follow suit, and the unification would be accomplished by itself."
Thae said his family visited Jo in Rome in 2008, where the latter was studying from 2006 to 2009. He guided them to sites such as St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
South Korea could not be "heaven on earth" but a place where Jo can realise his wishes, Thae said, highlighting the ardent desire for unification among many of the roughly 32,000 defectors there.
"The defectors may not be as wealthy as South Koreans," Thae added. "But isn't it the only thing you and I, as North Korean diplomats, should do the rest of our lives - to bring about unification and hand over a unified nation to our children?"
'SAFER PLACE FOR DEFECTION'
If confirmed to have fled, Jo would be another Europe-based diplomat who has sought to leave the impoverished, oppressive North under the rule of Kim Jong Un.
In 2015, a counsellor in charge of science affairs at the North's embassy in Germany defected with his wife to an unidentified country, while a secretary-level trade official stationed in Bulgaria and his wife also fled, Thae told South Korean cable news Channel A in an interview this week.
South Korean officials said they could not comment on intelligence matters.
Europe could be a safer place for North Korean diplomats than elsewhere due to its openness to receiving asylum seekers, defectors and experts say.
North Korea has formal diplomatic ties with 26 European nations, as well as Britain and Germany, since 2013, Seoul's Unification Ministry says.
Pyongyang requires diplomats going overseas to leave at least one child at home, but those from the top echelons or seen as the most loyal to the regime get some exceptions.
Jo hailed from a wealthy family of diplomats, and was able to take his child on his posting to Italy in 2015, Thae said.
"Diplomats in Europe are well-connected and sensitive to political changes at home, which allow them to make a move quickly," said Ahn Chan-il, a former North Korean military officer and defector.
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a North Korea specialist at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, said Europe offered a "more open, safer environment" for North Korean officials to discuss sensitive issues and consider defection.
"Also, Western European countries, such as Italy or the United Kingdom, are very likely to approve the asylum application or support the defection of any North Korean official who asks for it," said Pacheco Pardo, who regularly meets North Korean officials and defectors in Europe.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in SEOUL and Lesley Wroughton in WASHINGTON; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)