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Korean saved in Burkina Faso was on world tour

Victim’s condition is fine, but Seoul looks to revise travel alert
May 14,2019
The Korean woman rescued from a month of captivity in Burkina Faso last week in a daring raid by French commandos appears to have been on a world tour for the past 18 months before she was taken hostage.

The woman in her 40s, identified only by her surname Jang, was rescued Friday from local militants in an overnight operation that saved three other hostages, including two from France and an American. Two French commandos were killed during the raid near the West African country’s border with Mali.

The French special forces had not been aware that the Korean and American women, in her 60s, were also held captive, leaving many questions as to how they ended up being taken hostage. Jang arrived in North Africa from Europe in January and began her travels in Morocco. Over three months, she traveled through Senegal and Mali and arrived in Burkina Faso in early April.

She was taken hostage by local militants on April 12. Jang is said to have been snatched by armed assailants on a bus trip along with an American woman who was traveling from Burkina Faso to neighboring Benin, according to a source informed on the matter Monday.

Jang last communicated with her sister over the KakaoTalk messenger app in late March.

The two French hostages, music teachers Patrick Picque and Laurent Lassimouillas, earlier were confirmed to have disappeared while on a safari at the Pendjari National Park in northern Benin on May 1, where their guide was found dead and disfigured. The French government labels areas of northern Benin near the border with Burkina Faso, including the park where they were kidnapped, as a red zone, and discourages citizens from traveling to the area due to the presence of armed terrorist groups and the risk of kidnapping.

Jang was kept in bleak conditions, living in a mud hut for nearly a month. She tried to maintain her health as time passed by exercising and not skipping meals. It appears the captives were not beaten or otherwise abused.

The militant group did not contact the Korean government about Jang’s kidnapping ahead of the raid by French special forces, according to a Korean Foreign Ministry official.

After the rescue, Jang arrived in Paris with the two freed Frenchmen on Saturday and was welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron and the Korean ambassador to France. She was airlifted to France in cooperation with the French and South Korean government, as there is no Korean embassy in Burkina Faso. The freed American captive was returned to the United States.

Over the weekend, Jang was treated in a hospital in Paris and was expected to be released as early as Monday, French time. She is in relatively good health and is not suffering from malnutrition, according to a Korean Foreign Ministry official, but is in need of psychological stability.

Korean Ambassador to France Choi Jong-moon met with Jang to check on her condition and the situation. Jang has said that she would like to return to Korea as soon as possible.

In a case where a Korean national who faced an emergency abroad does not have the financial means to return home, the government will use its funds, but the Foreign Ministry determined that this case does not apply to Jang. Korea has had a level two, or yellow, alert out of its four-level travel advisory system on trips to the southern area of Burkina Faso since 2015.

Seoul has a red-alert advisory restricting travel to the northern part of Burkina Faso and Mali, advising Koreans not to visit or leave the country where the warning is imposed. Seoul issued a Level 3 advisory, or red alert, restricting travel to Benin on Monday evening.

The Korean government plans on reviewing the travel warning system for conflict-prone regions in Africa and the Middle East and to bolster coordination with developed countries, including France, on crisis management, a Foreign Ministry official said Monday. The Foreign Ministry plans to coordinate with its overseas missions and utilize its official website and social media services to spread information and awareness on traveling safely and restrictions on visiting dangerous regions.

Burkina Faso gained independence from French colonial rule in 1960 and has undergone multiple coup d’etats over the decades. The region has faced growing instability amid increased militant activity, especially in the Sahel area south of the Sahara.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]