A high level defection from one of North Korea's most important embassies is believed to have taken place late in 2018 when Jo Song-gil, the envoy to Rome fled his post.
North Korea's embassy not only represents the country in Italy but also at the Vatican and the World Food Organisation, an important partner for a fragile state that frequently fights famine conditions. It is also believed that Pyongyang and Holy See are in advanced talks about a papal visit by Pope Francis to the Communist-run country.
Defectors opposed to the regime of Kim Jong-un pointed to the significance of Mr Jo's defection along with his wife in a midnight flit from the mission. Only the most trusted of North Korean diplomats are permitted to travel abroad with their families. Mr Jo was a product of the North Korean elite and both his father and father-in-law served as ambassadors as well.
A South Korean MP, Kim Min-ki revealed the news on Thursday, citing a briefing by Seoul's National Intelligence Service to parliamentarians. La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, said that Mr Jo could still be in Italy under the protection of the country's intelligence services but that his most likely end destination would be the US.
An official with the Italian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Mr Jo hadn't formally requested asylum from Italy. The official also confirmed that Mr Jo was no longer serving as a diplomat in Italy.
If confirmed it will be the highest level defection from the Kim regime since Thae Yong Ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, fled to South Korea in 2016.
Speaking on South Korean television after the latest development, Mr Thae said he worked with Jo for more than a decade in the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Europe bureau. He added that Mr Jo not comes from a family of diplomats but also has a son.
Mr Jo took up the acting envoy post in October 2017 after Italy expelled then-ambassador Mun Jong-nam in protest over North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile tests in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions.
Mr Jo's posting began in May 2015 and was due at the end of November, Mr Thae said Mr Jo was replaced by a new ambassador, Kim Chon.
North Korea's state media previously derided Mr Thae as "human scum" and any move by the US to offer Mr Jo asylum would complicate the talks between Washington and Pyongyang to normalise relations.
While North Korean regime maintains it is committed to negotiating with the United States and the international community over its nuclear programme, there has not been much progress so far.
After Mr Kim and President Donald Trump launched the negotiations at a summit in Singapore in June, the prospect of a second meeting has receded. Mr Trump at one point predicted the meeting would take place early this year.
Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, made four trips to Pyongyang in 2018 but abruptly postponed talks with Kim Yong Chol — one of the North Korean leader's right-hand men — in New York in November that was set-up to discuss progress towards a denuclearisation pact.
Mr Kim used his New Year address to declare his willingness to meet Mr Trump again at any time but added a warning that Pyongyang would seek a "new way" if Washington tried to force a one-sided agreement on it.