SEOUL, South Korea — It’s difficult to imagine that kidnappers could get away with abducting a privileged foreign student from a French university and spiriting him thousands of miles away to his home country via a flight departing from a public airport.
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But that’s precisely what North Korean operatives are accused of attempting this fall.
Even more astonishingly, the move was essentially standard operating procedure for the despotic country’s spy masters.
The young man in France, whose surname is Han, is the son of a high-level official who fell out of favor with Kim Jong Un’s regime, and was reportedly executed earlier this year. The son first went missing from his architecture school, Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette, in October. Two weeks later, in early November, he appeared with his kidnappers at Charles De Gaulle airport. There, he made a bold escape, fleeing in a last-ditch attempt to save himself from imprisonment — or worse.
He’s now in hiding, possibly with the help of the French government. The story didn’t break until late November, first getting out through the South Korean press.
“This is a young guy who is the son of an important man in the North Korean regime,” a French official told TIME, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak about the case. “His dad was executed a few months ago so that is why, I suppose, he was targeted.”.
The French embassy in Seoul could not be reached for comment.
The news comes almost a year after Kim Jong Un’s nephew, Kim Han Sol, also went into hiding in France, rattled by the purge of the Supreme Leader’s uncle, Jang Song Taek. His side of the family — reviled and pretty much excommunicated from North Korea — could easily have been targeted as well.
While these kidnappings are not exactly numerous, no one, at least in previous decades, had been entirely safe from them. The regime’s history of abductions on foreign soil have targeted North Koreans in exile as well as complete innocents who have nothing to do with the regime.
That said, North Korean kidnappings on foreign soil were pretty much a Cold War tactic. In the 1970s and 1980s, dozens (and possibly hundreds) of Japanese, Europeans and Southeast Asians were believed to be abducted from their own soil, forced to train spies in their native tongues and customs; many are still unaccounted for. A few were even married off to American military deserters.
Overseas North Koreans like Han, on the other hand, would likely be treated as ideological enemies preparing to stand trial, rather than non-Koreans kidnapped for a special purpose.
The kidnapping racket, although no longer a big part of North Korea’s clandestine operations, didn’t fully come to light until the past decade, following decades of denials by the government and its far-left sympathizers around the world.
Here are a few of the most egregious cases:.
The Japanese wife of an American deserter.
In 1965, Charles Robert Jenkins, a National Guard patrolman stationed in South Korea, dropped his equipment and ran across the heavily mined demilitarized zone, surrendering to North Korean forces. At least, that’s how he recounted it in his 2005 memoir The Reluctant Communist.
Jenkins, who didn’t want to serve in Vietnam, hoped that he’d be sent back to Washington via a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. Instead, the regime seized on his propaganda value, keeping him in Pyongyang and later casting him as the villain in anti-American films. He stayed in North Korea for most of his life.
More than a decade later, the unlikely celebrity was offered a wife by a regime that wanted to keep him happy. She was Hitomi Soga, who like at least 13 of her Japanese compatriots, was snatched from her own soil.
In 1978, accompanying her mother home after ice cream, on an island off the country’s west coast, North Korean agents nabbed Soga, then a nursing student, and carried her away in body bag and onto a skiff hidden beneath a bridge. Soga’s mother also disappeared, presumably kidnapped, but was never heard from again.
Soga spent the next two decades teaching North Korean spies how to act and speak like the Japanese.
In what led to a diplomatic incident in 2002, she and four other abductees were briefly allowed to go home to Japan, but all defied the regime’s orders to return to North Korea. It was only a few years later that Jenkins and their two daughters were permitted to depart Pyongyang, emotionally reuniting with Soga. The American deserter then surrendered at a U.S. Military base in Japan, only to face a surprisingly light court martial.
The family continues to live in Japan, and has called on North Korea to reveal the whereabouts of Soga’s mother.
Suspected: The Romanian wife of another American deserter.
In 1978, a Romanian art student in Italy, Doina Bumbea, vanished after being approached by a man who promised to fix her up with an exhibition space in either Hong Kong or Japan, depending on whose account you believe.
Nobody had an inkling of her whereabouts until Jenkins released his 2005 autobiography. He alleged that the ex-wife of fellow defector James Dresnok — an American deserter who still lives in Pyongyang — was actually a troubled and heavy-drinking abductee from Romania. Her name? Dona — eerily similar to “Doina.”.
There were other parallels, too, although skeptics questioned the tale’s weirdness and lack of sourcing. With no passport to visit a Hong Kong art tour, Jenkins alleged that a mysterious Italian man, a regime sympathizer, fixed up a fake North Korean one for Dona. While on a layover in Pyongyang en route to Hong Kong, she was arrested and forced to confess to being a spy — revealing the Italian man’s true intentions, according to the book.
A 2006 documentary on Dresnok, Crossing the Line, soon roused the suspicions of Bumbea’s brother, who believed something was amiss in North Korea.
When Dresnok’s son made an appearance in the film, the brother claimed she bore an uncanny resemblance to his Romanian sister. Soon after, a bombastic Italian newspaper investigation alleged that the art student had probably been ushered away to teach languages in North Korea, just like the rest of the captives.
The Romanian government filed a request for information but didn’t hear back from North Korean authorities. Sadly, Dona died of lung cancer in 1997, ending any chance to tell her story.
South Korean film legends.
After the devastating Korean War of 1950 to 1953, North Korea waged a shadow campaign of incursions and kidnappings against its southern enemy. Fishing trawler crews near the DMZ were attacked and seized, as were vulnerable farmers and construction workers whose identities could be stolen and used for spying.
The practice is hardly an issue today, but the South Korean government maintains that more than 3,500 South Koreans have been nabbed since the Korean War armistice.
The most high-profile of these heists was ordered by the second of three Kims who would rise to become North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il.
A cinephile and maker of cheesy propaganda films, Kim (prior to becoming leader) apparently had trouble finding actual talent within his isolated kingdom. So instead of dipping into the regime’s drug-money coffers to hire a starlet, he did what any aspiring despot would do: ordered the abduction of South Korea’s most glamorous husband and wife celebrity team — director Shin Sang Ok and actress Choi Eun Hee in 1978 — while they were in Hong Kong.
The unlucky duo, then just divorced, was forced to slave away on a line-up of annoyingly bad films, including a Godzilla knock-off named Pulgasari. Shin was imprisoned for trying to escape twice, but the team finally broke free through the US Embassy in Vienna in 1986, while attending a film festival with a delegation of government minders, according to Shin’s Korean-language memoir.
At first, Kim Jong Il was convinced that the Americans kidnapped them, asking them to come home. But he later shelved their films out of anger. Shin died in 2006. His ex-wife, now 88, did not respond to a request for comment.
This article originally appeared on Global Post. It was written and edited independently of USA TODAY, which is a content partner.
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