A North Korean diplomat has defected to South Korea - sparking fears his family left behind are now in ‘danger’.
Jo Song-gil, the acting ambassador to Italy who went missing with his wife in Rome in 2018, has been in South Korea since July last year.
Jeon Hae-cheol, head of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee and an MP, confirmed he ”arrived voluntarily” in 2019.
He had wanted it kept secret as he was “concerned" for his relatives still in the North.
It makes him the most senior defector since 1997.
But there are now fears for his teenage daughter, who reportedly returned to the rogue state led by Kim Jong Un in February 2019.
The foreign ministry in Italy said she was repatriated there after her parents went missing and at her own request, the BBC reported.
Mr Jeon said: "Former acting Ambassador Jo came to South Korea voluntarily in July 2019.
”He had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to South Korea.
"He was concerned for his family remaining in North Korea.”
The former diplomat, who was first posted to Rome in 2015, vanished with his wife after leaving North Korea’s embassy in Italy without notice in November 2018.
It happened shortly before his term as the country’s acting ambassador, which he was appointed to in 2017, was due to end.
At the time, it was reported he was seeking asylum under the protection of western governments.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said she was "surprised" at news of his whereabouts and shared concerns for his daughter.
Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile defector who left his post as the North’s deputy ambassador to the UK in 2016, expressed concern over possible retribution.
He said: "To former North Korean diplomats who have their families in the North, disclosing their whereabouts is a serious humanitarian matter linked to the fate of their children."
He added: "Where a defected diplomat lives determines the levels of treatment or punishment to be given to his relatives left in the North.
"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."
North Korean diplomats posted in foreign countries often have to leave several relatives behind in Pyongyang.
This is done as it is expected to stop them from defecting.