South Korean Teen May Have Traveled to Syria to Join Islamic State

The Turkish border city of Kilis, where the missing Korean teenager met and vanished in an unmarked taxi with an unidentified man on Jan. 10. Photo courtesy of Yonhap.

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Seoul officials are speculating that a South Korean teenager who went missing in Turkey may have crossed the border into Syria to join the Islamic State.

The 18-year-old, identified only by his surname Kim, traveled to Istanbul on Jan. 8 and made his way to Kilis, a border town, along with a South Korean guide. The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Kim went missing on Jan. 10 after leaving his hotel. The guide, whose identity has not been disclosed, reported Kim’s disappearance to the Korean Embassy on Jan. 12.

Security footage showed Kim leaving the hotel around 8 a.m. and entering a van with an unidentified man about half an hour later. A foreign ministry official said the vehicle, which carried a Syrian license plate, was an unregistered taxi. Kim and the other passenger were dropped off at a camp for Syrian refugees east of Kilis, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet ran a story reporting that a South Korean national had joined IS, but the South Korean Foreign Ministry said the claim had not been verified, as there was no proof that Kim had actually crossed the border. However, the WSJ notes that travelers, including Islamic militants, have often passed through Kilis to get into Syria.

Milliyet also reported that Kim had exchanged emails with IS before traveling to Turkey. South Korean police said they found photos of IS members on the wallpaper of Kim’s computer at home, as well as tweets from a user presumed to be Kim saying he wanted to join the militant group, according to Korea Herald. Kim had reportedly told his family he was visiting a friend named Hassan, who he had apparently met online as part of his first overseas trip.

If it is confirmed that Kim had crossed the border into Syria to join Islamic State, he would be the first South Korean jihadist recruited to the group.

On Tuesday, South Korea extended travel bans on six countries, including Syria, along with Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. Seoul and Damascus have no diplomatic relations as well.