Police hunt for missing teen in Turkey

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Police hunt for missing teen in Turkey

Korean authorities suspect that a teenage boy who vanished in Turkey may have joined a violent jihadist group.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced Sunday that a Korean national had gone missing on Jan. 10, during his travels in Turkey with a family friend.

According to a source informed about the investigation, Korean authorities are looking into the boy’s disappearance and are considering the possibility that he may have illegally entered into Syria to contact the Islamic State (ISIS).

The authorities obtained intelligence that the boy, only identified as Kim, was taken to Syria by someone other than his travel companion.

Kim and his family friend, surnamed Hong, 45, are reported to have entered Turkey on Jan. 8, and then moved to Kilis, a city near the border with Syria, on the same day. The 18-year-old Seoul resident went missing two days later.

Hong informed the Korean Embassy about Kim’s disappearance on Jan. 12.

The Korean government became particularly alarmed over the boy’s disappearance when Turkish media reported over the weekend that he had illegally entered Syria and joined ISIS, a radical Islamist group that has seized large territories in Syria and Iraq.

The Milliyet daily newspaper also reported Saturday that Turkish authorities have confirmed with the Korean government that Kim had exchanged messages with an ISIS member using his computer.

Fueling the possible link between the boy’s disappearance and the jihadist group, suspicious photos were also found on his computer. According to the police, photos of ISIS militants posing in front of the group’s flag were discovered on the desktop background of his computer.

According to authorities, Kim had dropped out of middle school and mostly stayed home. Kim’s mother reported her son missing with the Korean police on Thursday, adding that the boy had a friend in Turkey.

“My son had a pen pal friend in Turkey, whose name was Hassan,” the mother was quoted as saying by the police. “He said he wanted to go to Turkey to meet the friend.”

Although the mother assisted in her son’s travels to Turkey, arranging the trip with a family friend, she had no further details about Hassan’s identity. The police also found no information on Hassan on the teenager’s computer.

The investigation has progressed slowly, with Hong refusing to cooperate. The 45-year-old returned from Turkey on Saturday but refused to submit to questioning.

“Without receiving a petition to investigate him, we cannot compel him to come to questioning,” a police official said.

So far, little is known about Hong other than that he is a family friend from the church Kim’s parents attend. The Kim family has also refused to elaborate on his role.

Furthermore, Hong and those who last saw the boy in Turkey have given contradictory testimony.

According to the source, Hong told Turkish authorities that Kim was taken by someone when they were dining together.

However, a hotel staffer in Kilis told Korean media on Sunday that Kim had left the hotel on the morning of Jan. 10. He was wearing a white mask and carrying his backpack, the staff member said.

“After the boy disappeared, Hong mostly stayed in his room for the next three days, except for going out for about 30 minutes in the morning,” the staff member was quoted as saying.

Hong also rejected the employee’s recommendation to report the boy missing to the police and contacted the Korean Embassy the next day.

No solid evidence has yet turned up to confirm that Kim had illegally entered Syria to join ISIS.

“We found some images of Kim from the surveillance cameras on the streets after he left the hotel,” said a Foreign Ministry official. “We are tracing his route, but it was not confirmed that he had crossed the border into Syria.”

The ministry official also denied a Turkish media report that local authorities have arrested a Korean man who had escaped from ISIS custody after illegally entering Syria. The man confessed to the authorities that the boy joined ISIS, the report said.

The Foreign Ministry, however, said no Korean was arrested in Turkey.

“The Korean embassy checked on the report, and the man in the report appeared to be Kim’s travel companion who reported the boy missing,” a ministry official said. “He is a man in his 40s and he was never arrested nor detained by the police in Turkey. He also cooperated with the embassy in search of the boy.”

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se telephoned his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, on Sunday and requested Turkey help in returning Kim home safely. Minister Cavusoglu reportedly promised all possible support.

On Friday, Kim’s father arrived in Turkey to cooperate with embassy employees in the search. He was scheduled to return to Korea on Sunday.

According to international media, about 20,000 people from 90 countries worldwide have joined ISIS by entering Syria. In an interview with CNN in September, a man who was captured by the group claimed that Korea was one of the countries where youngsters were recruited.

“There are many nationalities,” he was quoted as saying by CNN. “From Norway, from America, Canada, Somalia, Korea, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon and other European countries like Germany and France.”

BY YOO JI-HYE, SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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