One day in early November a young North Korean student passing through Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris suddenly bolted away from his travel companions and vanished into the crowds. It seemed to be a last-ditch effort to save himself from imprisonment or execution, according to French government officials.
Officials believe the man, whom they have identified only as Han, was escaping from North Korean agents who French authorities believe had abducted him. “He was taken to the airport but he escaped,” says a French official who did not want to be named because she was not authorized to speak about the case. “This is a young guy who is the son of an important man in the North Korean regime. His dad was executed a few months ago so that is why, I suppose, he was targeted.”
Han’s father was an aide to Jang Song-thaek, a powerful figure under former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the son and successor of Kim Jong-il, ordered Jang executed in December 2013 after Jang was charged with treason.
About two weeks before Han fled his captors he had disappeared from his campus at l’Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture in Paris, according to school officials and French police. A group of North Korean students began studying at the school in 2012 as part of a cultural exchange program between France and North Korea, aimed at improving relations between the two countries.
When Han vanished from the university French police quizzed faculty members and students about where he was, but no one had seen him for about two weeks, according to Yonhap, a South Korean news agency.
Han now appears to be in hiding. The French official who spoke to TIME said Han’s location was being kept secret “for his own safety,” but suggested that the government knows where he is. Pascal Dayez-Burgeon, a North Korea expert who served as a French diplomat in Seoul between 2001 and 2007, believes that after escaping from his captors Han might have headed to South Korea’s embassy in Paris to find refuge and claim asylum. He points to the fact that reports of Han’s escape appeared in South Korea in late November, suggesting that journalists in Seoul had waited until they knew Han was safe before publishing the news.
The alleged kidnapping of Han was the second North Korea-related incident in France in just under a year. Last December another young student, Kim Han-sol, vanished from his university campus in the French coastal city of Le Havre, where he was studying at the Institute of Political Science. Kim, 19, is a nephew of Kim Jong-un and apparently feared he was in danger because of a political purge that was underway in North Korea. The young student stayed out of sight for a week and then reappeared on campus guarded by French police. He now has two bodyguards, “to make sure he will not be abducted by the regime,” according to Dayez-Burgeon.
Kim Han-sol’s family had been closely connected to Jang Song-thaek. The student had another reason to worry: In a Finnish television interview two years ago, when he was 17, he described his grandfather, former leader Kim Jong-il, as having been a “dictator” whom he had barely known growing up.
North Korean students abroad rarely defect. North Korea experts say that could be because possible defectors fear that the government would retaliate against their relatives back home. “They all belong to the elite of the regime, so if they do break away their whole family back home could be held hostage,” says Dayez-Burgeon.
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