On February 22, 2019, the North Korean Embassy in Madrid was attacked by “human rights activists” formerly known as Cheollima Civil Defense and renamed as Free Joseon. About ten raiders beat staff at the Embassy, tortured North Korea’s only accredited diplomat in Spain So Yun-sok to get him to defect, and left the Embassy with stolen computers, hard drives and documents. The raiders then took a detour, arriving in the United States, where they say they voluntarily shared part of the stolen information with the FBI.
Free Joseon claims that it is a political group whose members are North Korean defectors living in different countries all around the world, but does not work with defectors in South Korea. However, it is understood that the group’s leader Adrian Hong is a Mexican citizen and a permanently resident green card holder in the United States, while the Korean-language statements posted on the Free Joseon website resemble text which was originally written in English.
Since the attack, the group has made a number of appeals, and announced the establishment of a government in exile, which includes members of the Kim family who managed to escape from North Korea according to statements from individuals associated with the group. The alleged family members include Kim Han-sol — the son of Kim Jong-nam, who was the eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — who they claim to have “saved”, and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s aunt, Ko Yong-suk, who fled to the United States in 1988. However, none of these family members have come forward to confirm these claims.
In March 2019, Spain’s High Court publicly named a number of suspects, including several US citizens. It is also understood that Madrid’s intention is to seek to have all the suspects extradited from the United States.
And this is the first evidence that has been seen which shows that the investigation is making progress. According to the NK News portal, the US government arrested several US citizens who are linked to the raid.
On April 19, the Washington Post cited two sources familiar with the case and reported that on April 18, US authorities arrested Christopher Ahn, a former US marine associated with the group, and he is soon to appear before a Los Angeles federal court. The specific charges on which Ahn has been arrested are not yet known, but a Spanish police investigator in the case, who asked not to be named, told the Associated Press in Madrid on Saturday that Ahn was identified by Spanish police at a later stage in the investigation, and an international warrant was issued for his arrest.
It is also reported that on April 18, Federal agents raided Adrian Hong Chang’s apartment, but he himself was not arrested.
Details surrounding the case are otherwise scarce: the Washington Post did not receive any further details in response to the official request it made to the FBI.
Free Joseon reacted to this news with a statement released by the group’s lawyer Lee Wolosky on their behalf: “We are dismayed that the US Department of Justice has decided to execute warrants against US persons that derive from criminal complaints filed by the North Korean regime. The last US citizen who fell into the custody of the Kim regime returned home maimed from torture and did not survive. We have received no assurances from the US government about the safety and security of the US nationals it is now targeting.”
The lawyer is making a reference to the story of the deceased student Otto Warmbier in his statement, and overlooks the fact that there were no signs of torture found on Warmbier’s body. Let’s not forget that Lee Wolosky is a former State Department official and a Super Lawyer whose words carry a lot of weight, and the group would either have needed a lot of money to hire him, or ideological support. Lee S. Wolosky served under the last three US presidents in significant national security positions, and then became a lawyer at the firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. Wolosky served as Director for Transnational Threats on the US National Security Council under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who was responsible for coordinating the US Government’s response to terrorism prior to September 11. He was also responsible for coordinating US policy on illicit finance impacting national security.
Wolosky’s work at the White House also involved directing sensitive operations, including leading the U.S. government effort to apprehend arms trafficker Viktor Bout. In 2003-2004, Wolosky served as a senior advisor to the presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry and as co-director of the campaign’s counter-terrorism policy coordinating group. He was appointed to the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security in 2010. From July 2015 to January 2017, Wolosky was the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure and led efforts to reduce the detainee population and transfer them to other prisons and other countries.
In 2001, Wolosky became an attorney at the Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, a prominent US law firm headed by David Boies, whose partners are known for high-profile matters such as representing Al Gore in the contested 2000 US presidential election, and representing the US Government in its anti-trust dispute with Microsoft. Wolosky served as co-lead counsel to a number of the families of 9/11 victims in connection with a multibillion-dollar federal court judgment entered against Iran. Neil Cavuto, a conservative Fox News anchor, has called Wolosky one of America’s brightest lawyers.
Here we will discuss how human rights advocates, South Korean experts and public figures from the North Korean defector community living in South Korea have reacted to the raid. The first thing that needs to be said is that no one condemned the raid outright. On the contrary, the feelings that are being expressed are interest, sympathy and a fairly cautious hope that the Free Joseon group’s activity will bring about a regime change.
Up until this point, the campaigning of defector organizations has really been mostly limited to campaigns to disseminate information, such as sending flyers to North Korea and smuggling USB sticks into the country. Only the Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK) chaired by the odious Park Sang-hak openly admitted that they were preparing to commit terrorist attack involving the use of drones with explosives they planned to launch from China. Of course Park Sang-hak, who fled North Korea in 2000, came out in support of the raid.
Professor Nam Joo-hong from Kyonggi University said: “Free Joseon is completely different from other anti-North Korean groups”. In Nam’s opinion, Pyongyang’s week-long silent official reaction was also a sign that North Korea was still recovering from the shock: “The North Korean regime has not commented on the latest incident because it feels threatened by Free Joseon’s activities.”
A similar view was taken in the conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo: “The silence could be a measure of how threatened the regime feels by the apparently well-connected group, which calls itself Free Jeoson and is using modern guerrilla tactics instead of the staid strategies of more conventional defector groups.” Supposedly, the regime fears Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy could be threatened if the North Koreans realize that Kim Il-sung has other direct descendants who could offer them an alternative future.
Co-Founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees project Casey Lartigue said he would not be surprised to hear that Adrian Hong had led the raid on the North Korean Embassy in Spain. “From what I know about him, he has been burning for years to do something that would strike at the heart of North Korea,” and Lartigue added that if he had been asked to choose who he thought would be most likely to attack North Korea directly, Adrian’s name would be one of the first people Lartigue would mention.
Remco Breuker who is a Professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, believes that the group “seems to be well organized, it clearly identifies itself with the North Koreans, it has a number of noteworthy actions on its resume. This is to my knowledge the first serious government in exile.”
The only Russian-speaking scholar to openly speak out against the actions taken by Free Joseon was Professor Andrei Lankov, a specialist in Korean studies, who expresses great concern in what he writes about the group’s actions. In Lankov’s opinion, although the group’s supporters proactively position it as a group of freedom fighters, there is nothing to be admired about the actions Free Joseon have taken. “What they have done was cruel, immoral and dangerous, and could have very undesirable consequences.”
The conclusion this article draws echoes Lankov’s assessment, and our next article will focus on the individual who is really behind this “organization of defectors” and the dark deeds that could be weighing heavy on his conscience.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.