North Korean student and son of executed Kim Jong-un uncle’s aide on run from Pyongyang agents in France: diplomats
A North Korean student, the son of an aide to Kim Jong-un’s executed uncle, is on the run in France after evading an abduction attempt by Pyongyang’s agents, according to foreign diplomats.
“There was an attempt to force him to go back, but it is thought he escaped and is somewhere in France. There is an attempt to locate him but he hasn’t been found yet,” said one diplomatic source.
The architecture student, referred to only by his surname Han, vanished from Paris last month. He is believed to be the son of a close confidant of Jang Song-thaek, Mr Kim’s once powerful uncle who was executed last December on treason charges. His father was killed recently as part of the purge of Jang’s allies.
“Since the 1980s, when the regime changes and someone is executed and his relatives and friends and family are studying abroad, they are brought home,” said Park Sung-jin, Paris correspondent for Yonhap, South Korea’s biggest news agency. “If Han returned he would likely be kept in a political prison or executed. That has happened many times. He knew what was awaiting him, so he escaped.”
The student’s disappearance has lifted the lid on the murky ties between France and the communist regime.
Despite having no official diplomatic relations with the dictatorship, France has invited North Korean students from privileged backgrounds to study architecture in Paris since 2002.
Mr Han was studying at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette. He had left North Korea for the French capital in 2012, along with nine other North Koreans, five of whom are posted at another architecture school in Belleville. They are in their third year of a five-year course. “We didn’t decide out of the blue to take on students from North Korea, the decision was made by the French culture ministry to whom we answer. This is over our heads,” said a head teacher at the La Villette school, who recalled her surprise when the first batch of students turned up wearing badges with the portrait of their “Dear Leader”.
The students were kept under close surveillance, she said. “There is often an Asian man in a three-piece suit waiting in the courtyard, checking up on attendance and if they get good results,” she added. “When one failed part of his exam and was sent home, a representative from the North Korean delegation in Paris wanted to take it in his place. We had to explain that wasn’t possible.”
After long denying its existence, the French foreign ministry confirmed that a “cooperation programme” involving “students from North Korea trained in architecture in Paris” had been in place for the past decade.
It had no further comment.
The programme was set up by Jean-Noel Juttet, a former French ambassador to Japan, who said he was asked by the French foreign ministry to find ways of “maintaining contact between the two countries”.
Homing in on education, he said the French suggested courses in “priority sectors, like medicine, food or construction” but that the North Koreans were interested in only one field: architecture.
“That was a request that came all the way from the top. They insisted so much that we ended up agreeing,” he told Street Press, an online news site that first uncovered the student programme.
The students are supposed to help transform Pyongyang’s skyline with new, cutting-edge architectural designs, such as the Ryugyong hotel, a 1,000ft building completed in 2012. They have reportedly been behind designs for a new ice skating rink, dolphinarium and sports centre opened last year to help North Korea become a “new society of leisure”.
Architecture is not Kim Jong-un’s only area of interest in France. In April, it also emerged that the Emmental-loving despot had ordered three officials to attend a crash course in cheese-making at a dairy school in eastern France – reportedly because he was dissatisfied with his country’s attempts at dairy production. The school politely declined.