The daughter of a North Korean diplomat who is believed to have defected late last year has been forcefully repatriated to her home country where she is being detained by authorities, according to another ex-diplomat defector.
Italy has warned that if the reports of abduction were "confirmed, this would be of unprecedented gravity."
Jo Song Gil, North Korea's acting ambassador to Rome since October 2017, allegedly went into hiding with his wife last November and is reportedly seeking asylum in the West — although a diplomatic source in Rome told Reuters that Italy has no record of Jo seeking asylum there.
But Jo "could not manage to get his daughter to join them," Thae Yong Ho, North Korea's former deputy ambassador to the UK — who defected to South Korea in 2016 — told a press conference on Tuesday, according to local media.
"North Korea took the child back to the country immediately," Thae told journalists, adding that he has now "confirmed" that she was "repatriated to North Korea and she is under control of the North Korean authorities."
It is unclear how North Korea repatriated the girl.
Thae had called on Jo last month to join him to South Korea, writing in an open letter published on his blog that "Seoul is the base camp for the unification of the Korean peninsula."
"As North Korean diplomats, what you and I should do for the rest of our lives is to unify the country and hand over the unified nation to our children's generation," he added then.
But on Tuesday, Thae said that "as a person who arrived in South Korea with all my children, I would not be able to continue to demand my colleague Jo Song Gil come to South Korea as he is in such a difficult situation that his daughter is taken back to North Korea."
Jo, he explained, is now facing "the difficult situation in which he is not able to make his whereabouts known to the public, or make public appearances due to fears over the personal safety of his daughter."
According to South Korea's Ministry of Unification at least 32,000 North Koreans have defected since 1998.
Manlio Di Stefano, undersecretary at the Italian foreign ministry warned on Wednesday that "if confirmed, this would be of unprecedented gravity."
"Those responsible for this will pay, you can be sure of that," he wrote on Facebook, adding that the 17-year-old "now risks being tortured by one of the worst regimes in the world."
However, Antonio Razzi, a former Italian centre-right parliamentarian, rejected this version of events.
The staunch defender of North Korea accused Jo and his wife of abandoning their daughter and said she is now safe and being cared for by her grandparents.
"Those two wretches left their daughter alone. She is a child and suffers from a disability," Razzi told the Adnkronos news agency.
"It is normal that she was sent back to her grandparents," he added, denying she was in any danger.
North Korea normally requires diplomats posted overseas to leave at least one child at home. Exceptions are made for those from the top echelons or those seen as the most loyal to the leadership.