French police are investigating the disappearance of a North Korean exchange student who disappeared two weeks ago from a prestigious architecture college in the Parisian neighborhood of La Villette.
The student, identified only by his surname, Han, is the son of a former advisor to Jang Sung-thaek — the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — who was accused of being a counterrevolutionary and was executed in December 2013 on treason charges, according to South Korean news agency, Yonhap.
Han's father was also executed recently, as part of the regime's continued purges of former officials linked to Jang, Yonhap reported.
The younger Han, whose age was not immediately revealed, was "kidnapped by North Korean agents," but was able to flee his captors on the way to the airport and is now in hiding at an undisclosed location, an unidentified source told Yonhap.
Sources at French daily Le Monde said that the kidnapping occurred early November at the hands of "Asian men," but that Han was able to escape and avoid forced repatriation, for now.
In a twist, Radio France Internationale reported Wednesday that not one, but 10 students had gone missing in Paris. The students have reportedly since resurfaced, with South Korean media reports suggesting that they may have been "debriefed" by North Korean officials.
While France does not have official diplomatic links with North Korea, it has allegedly been running a discreet exchange program at Paris la Villette and Paris Belleville, two major architecture schools in the capital. According to an article published by StreetPress last year, the 10 North Korean students have been enrolled in this program since 2011.
The exchange program has reportedly been kept quiet by French authorities. Both of the schools and the ministry of foreign affairs declined to comment when contacted by VICE News.
On Friday morning, VICE News spoke to some of the North Korean students' classmates at Belleville university. The students, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed the existence of the exchange program, and described their North Korean counterparts as being "very sweet," saying they "dressed simply" and "kept mostly to themselves."
"We have conversations with them," one student said of his North Korean classmates. "They sometimes describe their childhood, or where they come from in North Korea. There aren't that many barriers, but at the same time, they always hang out together, and they are quite cut off [from us]."
Another classmate told VICE News that some of the exchange students' parents are teachers and professors in North Korea. Most are believed to be the children of high-ranking officials, according to local reports.
Almost all of the North Korean students are stellar academics, and only one had to re-sit exams, the French classmates said. During their time at the school, several of the North Korean exchange students were reportedly asked to collaborate on an architectural project with a group of South Korean students. Mostly, the details of the exchange were circumspect, the sources said.
The public prosecutor in Paris has opened a formal investigation into the abductions, citing fears of Han's possible execution, if he were forcibly expatriated to North Korea.
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