Audacious North Korean kidnap plot foiled at Paris airport as 'Asian men' attempted to bundle student onto plane

Han, the son of executed senior North Korean official, is now thought to be living under French government protection

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A political purge which is ravaging the North Korean elite reached out – clumsily and unsuccessfully – to the Paris suburbs early this month.

A student in his early 20s was kidnapped, probably by North Korean agents, outside an architectural college north of Paris. The young man, named only as Han, the son of a senior North Korean official who was recently executed, has not been seen in public since. 

It was reported at the weekend, however, that the student had evaded his kidnappers at Charles de Gaulle airport as he was about to be bundled on to a flight to China. He is now reported to be living at a secret address somewhere in France, probably under French government protection.

Four other North Korean students have also failed to attend classes near Paris since his disappearance, but they are believed to be lying low, waiting for the incident to blow over.

The episode has been shrouded in great secrecy on all sides. Although France has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, Paris appears to be anxious to avoid a public slanging match with the unpredictable and paranoid dictatorship in Pyongyang.

The young man is the son of a senior aide to North Korea’s former No 2, Jang Song-thaek, who was abruptly executed 11 months ago. The student’s father is believed to have been one of a group of officials close to the once powerful Mr Jang who were executed for “treason” last month.

Mr Jang was the uncle of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. Mr Kim came to power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in April 2012. Although events within the North Korean power structure are notoriously difficult to follow, South Korean intelligence officials have briefed media in Seoul on a series of purges in recent months as Mr Kim and his aides move to expunge all traces of his uncle’s power network.

Mr Han was one of 10 architectural students who travelled to Paris in 2011 as part of a cultural and educational exchange with France. His disappearance was first reported last week by the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

French government sources confirmed on Sunday that he had been seized in early November by a group of Asian men outside his prestigious college, the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette. The sources said, however, that Mr Han had managed to evade his captors before being placed on a flight to China en route to Pyongyang. Reports in the French and South Korean media suggest that Mr Han might have been “freed” by French border police, possibly alerted by the student himself. The government sources refused to comment on these reports.

The young man is now said to be in hiding. Officials refuse to say whether he plans to seek political asylum in France or South Korea.

Four other North Korean students at the architectural school at La Villette, close to Charles de Gaulle airport, have also vanished from view. It is believed, however, that they are still in France and under orders from Pyongyang to lie low.

Five North Korean students at another architectural school, Paris-Belleville, in the centre of the capital, are attending their classes normally. Murielle Fréchède, their director of studies, told Le Monde: “They are good students, serious about their work. They are doing  pretty well.”

After Kim Jong-il’s death, the succession passed to his little-known third son, Kim Jong-un. It was initially thought that the real power would remain with Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, the husband of his youngest sister.

But in December last year Kim Jong-un moved to assert his dominance by accusing Jang of treason and having him executed.