Like most South Korean youngsters, he was known to spend a lot of time on the Internet playing video games. But now, South Korean police say, a home-schooled 18-year-old who developed an online fascination with Islamic State has gone missing in Turkey and may have crossed into Syria in an effort to join the militant group.
If confirmed, the case of the vanished teenager -- identified by authorities only by his surname, Kim -- would mark the first instance of a South Korean joining Islamic State, and news of the unusual situation has dominated headlines in the country since details emerged this week.
Kim had reportedly been a somewhat troubled youth, and police said he had traveled to Turkey with a family friend, a 45-year-old man surnamed Hong. Police say Hong has cooperated with the investigation and is not believed to have any knowledge of Kim’s whereabouts.
At a briefing on Tuesday, a police official said Kim was last seen in the Turkish city of Kilis. He wrote on Facebook in broken English shortly before leaving for Turkey: “I want leaving my country and families just want to get a new life.”
Police said they had looked into Kim’s online history and found more than 500 searches on Islamic State and related topics, including Syria. On Kim’s computer, police said, authorities found images of members of the Sunni militant group brandishing firearms.
Seoul police superintendent Chung Jae-il said analysis of Kim’s mobile phone records showed that he had made calls to local numbers in Turkey after arriving, possibly to contacts he made online. His phone is now turned off or out of a service area, Chung said at the briefing.
“Various data showed that Kim had shown deep interest in ISIS, but we cannot confirm whether he joined the group or not,” Chung said, according to the JoongAng Daily newspaper. He added that there was no evidence of abduction, and that Kim appeared to have traveled into Syria of his own free will.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim had been home-schooled since leaving middle school several years ago. He had traveled to Turkey with his parents’ permission. "He told me he wanted to go somewhere and get some fresh air and then return to live a new life," his mother told the newspaper.
Police also released images from a Twitter account attributed to Kim, on which he asked if anyone knew how to join the Sunni extremist group. The messages, written in clumsy English, also included comments about wanting to join due to a personal disdain for feminists and feelings of being discriminated against as a male.
There has been speculation that South Korea’s competitive culture, and the harsh demands on young people to excel in school, might have resulted in Kim feeling overwhelmed and wishing to flee.
A cartoon Thursday in the Hankyoreh, a left-leaning daily newspaper, depicted groups of forlorn-looking youths staring at a wall with a series of bleak options available to them, while a pair of kids escape through a side door labeled “terrorist.”
Borowiec is a special correspondent.