North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, went into hiding with his wife in November, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in Seoul Thursday.

A high-profile defection by one of North Korea’s elite would be a huge embarrassment for leader Kim Jong Un as he pursues diplomacy with Seoul and Washington and seeks to portray himself as a player in international geopolitics.

South Korean lawmaker Kim Min-ki said an official from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) shared the information during a closed-door briefing. Kim did not say whether the spy agency revealed any information about Jo’s current whereabouts or whether the diplomat had plans to defect to South Korea. Kim said the NIS said it has not been contacted by Jo.

Hiding since early November

The NIS earlier said it couldn’t confirm a South Korean media report that Jo was under the protection of the Italian government as he seeks asylum in a Western nation.

Early Thursday, the Italian Foreign Ministry said the envoy has not asked Italian authorities for asylum. 

Kim said the NIS official said Jo and his wife left the official residence in early November, weeks before his term was to end in late November.

Jo had been North Korea’s acting ambassador to Rome after Italy expelled then-Ambassador Mun Jong Nam in September 2017 to protest a North Korean nuclear test.

North Korea has not commented on Jo’s status.

Defections sensitive

North Korea, which touts itself in its propaganda as a socialist paradise, is extremely sensitive about defections, especially among its elite diplomatic corps, and has previously insisted that they are South Korean or U.S. plots to undermine its government.

The last senior North Korean diplomat known to have defected is Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, who defected to South Korea in 2016. North Korea described Thae as “human scum” and claimed he was trying to escape punishment for serious crimes.