A senior north korean diplomat who disappeared from his posting in italy in late 2018 has been in hiding in south korea for more than a year, marking a rare high-level defection from the nuclear-armed state.

Jo song gil, who was pyongyangs acting ambassador in rome, has been in south korea since july last year, jeon hae-cheol, a ruling party lawmaker and the head of the national assemblys intelligence committee said on wednesday.

The defection of a senior official has been seen as an embarrassment for north korean dictator kim jong un. the incident has drawn unwanted attention to weaknesses in the north korean regime and comes despite mr kims efforts to tighten control over his foreign service since assuming power in 2011, analysts said.

Diplomats are supposed to represent north korea overseas and they are probably better-off socially and economically than many others in north korea. when they defect, it sends the message to the outside world that even they have a hard time coping with the north korean system, said rachel lee, a former north korean analyst for the us government.

Beyond the extreme risks to their own safety, high-profile defectors also put family members or close contacts remaining in north korea in grave danger.

If [a diplomat] takes asylum in south korea, north korea classifies him as a traitor or apostate. no one knows what kinds of penalties are given to his family, said thae yong ho, a former north korean diplomat in the uk who defected in 2016.

Mr thae, now an opposition member of parliament in seoul, has said in previous interviews that he worked with mr jo in the same department of the norths foreign ministry in pyongyang. he said he never imagined that mr jo and his wife, who reportedly also defected, would seek asylum given their relative wealth and status in north korea.

However, mr jeon told reporters on wednesday that mr jo had repeatedly expressed his wish to come to south korea.

The revelation that mr jo has been hiding in south korea raises awkward questions for moon jae-in, south korean president, who has sought to limit any signs of tension with pyongyang as part of a bid to broker talks over ending north koreas nuclear weapons programme. the south korean presidential office did not immediately comment.

The events shine a light on north koreas network of foreign embassies which operate in scores of countries and have been linked by the un to illicit, sanctions-busting activities to bring in revenue for the cash-strapped kim regime.

Despite mr jo almost certainty being under the protection of south korean security forces, experts would not rule out a possible assassination attempt by the kim regime. they point to the case of yi han yong, the nephew of kim jong il kim jong uns father who defected in 1982. he changed his name and appearance through plastic surgery but was shot dead in south korea 15 years later, after his real identity became known.