Former North Korean acting ambassador to Rome Jo Song-gil has reportedly settled in South Korea since July last year after he vanished in November 2018. The news was first reported by a local media on Tuesday and was confirmed when Rep. Ha Tae-keung of People Power Party (PPP) wrote on his social media that Jo is currently under government protection. Rep. Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat defected to South Korea, expressed concerns about the media reports, saying he is very concerned about the situation and how the information has been exposed.
It would be good news if Jo has settled in South Korea as has been reported by local media. But the fact that the information has been leaked raises doubts if the South Korean government is doing its job of protecting North Korean defectors properly. Jo’s disappearance drew international attention since he was the highest-level (ambassador-level) North Korean diplomat to escape from North Korea. His daughter was reportedly repatriated to North Korea. That is why Rep. Thae, who had once publicly encouraged Jo to defect to South Korea, earlier said he cannot talk him into coming to South Korean anymore. He was worried about the severe level of punishment Jo’s daughter would receive if Jo is branded as a traitor by defecting to South Korea instead of a third country.
Therefore, the government should find out how the information was leaked. For its part, the media cannot avoid responsibility for choosing people’s right to know over the safety of a North Korean defector. But more importantly, it is necessary for the government to find out who first leaked the information, ask for their intention, hold them accountable, and prevent similar incident from happening again. Otherwise, no one will trust their life and safety to the South Korean government. It should also keep in mind that the incident is not irrelevant to the “politicization of information” controversy sparked after the politician-turned-National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Park Ji-won sworn in. If the incident is involved with an outdated political tactic of covering a controversy with attention-grabbing news, it certainly cannot be condoned and those who are responsible should be held accountable.
Furthermore, the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee cannot be free from responsibility for confirming the information. According to Rep. Ha, the Intelligence Committee has decided to confirm the information with the agreement of secretaries of the ruling and opposition parties since there were so many requests by the media asking for confirmation, adding it was a measure taken at the level of National Assembly. Judging from his remarks, the members of the Intelligence Committee, who receive confidential information on the premise of confidentiality, already learned about Jo’s whereabouts but that does not give them the right to confirm a matter that could risk the safety of defectors and their family members. Taking the opportunity, the requirements of confidentiality for the members of the Intelligence Committee should also be re-examined.