U.S. media outlets continue to report that Kim Jong-nam had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) before he was killed in 2017. In addition to WSJ (The Wall Street Journal) articles, Kim Jong-nam and his role as a CIA informant have been mentioned in Anna Fifield’s new book, The Great Successor. According to an unidentified “well-informed source” cited in the book, Kim Jong-nam typically met with intelligence agents in Singapore and Malaysia. And the cash (US$120,000) found with him after his death could have been payment for his intelligence-gathering work (or a win from a casino).
The publications appear to be a veiled attack against Donald Trump, who had become President a few weeks before Kim Jong-nam’s murder, and who has repeatedly stated that ‘he didn’t know whether the reports’ were true since then. On 11 June he also told journalists that ‘he would not have allowed the CIA to recruit the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’ under his auspices.
According to CNN, Donald Trump ‘wouldn’t confirm or deny reports’ that Kim Jong-un’s half-brother had been working with the CIA and highlighted that he had no prior knowledge of this. The U.S. President stated that ‘he would not have allowed the CIA’ to use its informants against DPRK’s leader Kim Jong-un while he remained the head of state.
His statement was viewed as an official denial of rumors that the CIA had been spying on Kim Jong-un by various means. It, therefore, drew criticism from the President’s adversaries, who think it is unlikely that Donald Trump really had no knowledge of any of this. And even if that were true, it would mean that the U.S. President chose not to take a hard line over the brazen assassination (involving the use of chemical weapons in a foreign country) of a person who had willingly cooperated with American intelligence agencies for the sake of re-establishing dialogue with the DPRK. In 2018, ‘the United States expelled 60 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russia’s poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter’. Yet when Kim Jong-un was accused of an analogous crime, Donald Trump refrained from a harsh response, and instead rushed ‘to assure North Korea’ that he would not ‘let such spying happen again’. Hence, Trump’s message to any would-be informants is clear: “The United States doesn’t have your back”.
Mike Pompeo was more evasive than Donald Trump. On 16 June, he commented on the rumors about Kim Jong-nam’s ties with the CIA in an interview with the FoxNews channel. Mike Pompeo said the United States was taking all the actions it needed to make sure they understood ‘the risks and threats that’ were posed by North Korea. When the host of the TV program asked the U.S. Secretary of State whether he had had any contact with Kim Jong-nam during his post as the head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo refused to ‘comment on intelligence matters’ due to security concerns. The CIA has also declined to say anything about this issue.
All of these discussions about U.S. involvement in this case have prompted the author to consider the possibility that the person who had met with Kim Jong-nam before his death was not some ‘elusive agent’ but instead Adrian Hong Chang. The latter is the leader of Cheollima Civil Defense (also known as Free Joseon) and is currently sought by authorities in connection with the raid on the North Korean embassy in Spain.
We would like to remind our readers about Adrian Hong Chang’s fascinating biography. At present, he is 35 years old, the same age as Kim Jong-un. His parents are Christian missionaries from South Korea who used to work in Mexico. This is why Adrian Hong Chang has a Mexican passport and a U.S. green card (i.e. he is a lawful permanent resident of the United States). According to sources in rights groups based in Washington DC, he joined a movement to defend human rights of DPRK citizens in 2004, while he was studying history at Yale University. At the time, Adrian Hong Chang learned about human rights abuses in North Korea at lectures taught by a defector from the DPRK, Kim Hyun-sik (a professor of Russian Literature). In 2005, he co-founded an activist group called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) and opened its branches in Seoul, Paris and other countries.
Adrian Hong Chang left LiNK in 2009 when he realized that more decisive measures needed to be taken against Pyongyang.
In 2011, after Moammar El-Gadhafi had been overthrown, Adrian Hong Chang signed a contract with the U.S. government and travelled to Libya to facilitate the formation of an interim government there. His consultancy work often involved the CIA. Later on, Adrian Hong Chang stated that he considered the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea.
In 2014, one source engaged in work on DPRK-related issues, told NK News that they viewed Adrian Hong Chang’s strategy as dangerous because he was more focused on regime change than on helping people who were at risk.
In 2015, Adrian Hong Chang established the Joseon Institute and became its head. The Institute researched the possibility of the current North Korean regime’s sudden collapse and drafted measures to accelerate this process. In addition, Adrian is believed to be the head of Pegasus Strategies LLC, a strategic advisory firm, which he described ‘as a company that uses modern technology to penetrate closed societies and empower the people living in these countries. His lawyer Lee Scott Wolosky ‘served under the last three US presidents in significant national security posts’.
In 2016, Adrian Hong Chang reached a conclusion that it was essential to create a government in exile in order to successfully oppose the North Korean regime. In his article published by The San Diego Union-Tribune in January 2016, he wrote: “We must avoid a repeat of Libya post-Gaddafi, where outsiders backed competing factions, benefiting the Islamic State and harming a populace long deserving of peace and liberty.” In addition, the proposed government had to be comprised of high-ranking defectors who remained somewhat influential in the DPRK. Ideally, the escapees ought to include disgraced members of the Kim family and their relatives.
Conservative media outlets in South Korea reported that Adrian Hong Chang suggested, on more than one occasion, that Kim Jong-nam head Free Joseon, but the latter refused each time. Both The Washington Post and ROK’s Chosun Ilbo have written about this before.
Chosun Ilbo, a conservative South Korean newspaper, has openly stated that Adrian Hong Chang and his team worked in concert with the U.S. intelligence agencies, which became apparent after the rescue of Kim Han-sol, Kim Jong-nam’s son. According to this media outlet (which, we should note, is notorious for its ‘red herrings’ about North Korea), CIA agents ‘spirited’ Kim Han-sol away from an airport in Taipei, while he was on route to a third country (as if he had been hiding there in an attempt to avoid returning to China), and transported him to the United States (according to another version of the story, he had been persuaded to accompany the agency employees voluntarily). Adrian Hong Chang also ‘handed over material from the Madrid embassy to the FBI’.
As for Kim Han-sol, on 29 May 2019, seemingly in response to the aforementioned rumors, Free Joseon started the “Freedom for Adrian Hong Chang and Christopher Ahn” campaign, involving Kim Jong-nam’s son, by releasing a video, which served to introduce the rest of the world to the Cheollima Civil Defense organization.
The full clip depicts Kim Han-sol expressing his gratitude to Adrian Hong Chang and his team for their assistance. He also shows parts of his passport signed by Choe Myong-nam, who was the deputy to the Permanent Representative of the DPRK to the UN in Geneva at the time when Kim Han-sol’s father Kim Jong-nam was assassinated. In the first video released, this information was blurred out and every time the young man mentioned Adrian’s name his voice became muffled.
The organization’s website and the South Korean Channel A network publicized Kim Han-sol’s appeal for help addressed to Adrian Hong Chang after his father had been killed as well as a photograph of the two men. The photo had been previously published by international media outlets but its authenticity was disputed.
The two sources also promoted websites that supported Free Joseon: www.freefj.is and www.supportfj.org. But what is even more interesting is that Kim Han-sol appears to have had ties with Adrian and his team even before his father was assassinated. The relationship between Kim Jong-nam and his son was complex for many reasons. Firstly, it is believed that it was because of Kim Han-sol that his father found himself in quite a predicament while visiting Japan. Secondly, before his death, Kim Jong-nam had remarried and started a new family, and at the time of his assassination he had been living with his mistress, a former Air Koryo flight attendant. Thirdly, Kim Jong-nam mentioned having problems with his son, Kim Han-sol, in various interviews, in which he described his son as a young man seeking adventures and enjoying unlimited freedom.
Since the author first started covering this case, he has been noting that South Korean involvement in the murder was just as likely as that of North Korea. And when activists from Cheollima Civil Defense attacked the DPRK embassy in Madrid two years later, a twisted puzzle started taking shape, i.e. the organization, which gained fame for rescuing Kim Jong-nam’s son after his father’s death, had in fact been behind his assassination.
Of course, this version of events is backed by many assumptions and other ‘highly likely’ statements, and certainly resembles a conspiracy theory. But still, if we were to take into account the loose evidence used to support the claims of DPRK’s involvement, our theory surely has merit.
Could Adrian Hong Chang’s organization have organized the killing? In theory, yes it could have if we were to consider a number of factors. Firstly, if Kim Jong-nam was actually poisoned by a binary version of the VX nerve agent (instead of its original form), two components of this weapon could have been synthesized in a laboratory. It is possible that the laboratory, uncovered at the beginning of the investigation into the case, was used to make the poison. However, any mention of this place stopped during the course of the inquiry.
Secondly, the women supposedly responsible for poisoning Kim Jong-nam could have come into contact with people who were not of North Korean descent. We would like to remind our readers that when lawyers first began working with the accused their story had been different. According to this original version of events, after the ‘prank’ the women met up with their sponsors, which means that the latter could not have left the country shortly after the murder.
In addition, the two young women were friends with people who looked decidedly Japanese or South Korean on social media platforms. In fact, one of the accused had definitely visited the ROK and had a number of South Korean Facebook acquaintances who had been her sponsors. And members of Cheollima Civil Defense certainly fit this description.
The idea of establishing a connection between people who the women socialized with and the DPRK citizens who had left Malaysia came about afterwards. And the original version of the story changed either because it came to light that Ri Jong-Chol had given these women lifts, or owing to the fact that the lawyers convinced the two female escorts to change their testimony.
Still, although a Red Notice for the four DPRK citizens, who had left Malaysia, was issued by INTERPOL, they are wanted for questioning by investigators and are innocent until proven guilty. It is also worth noting that the two North Korean citizens, who were in their embassy at the time they became suspects in the case over the course of the inquiry, were officially cleared of any wrongdoing once the investigators had a chance to interview them. Ri Jong-Chol, who had been accused by South Korean intelligence agencies of masterminding the assassination and synthesizing the poison because of his university degree in chemical engineering, was also cleared of the crime earlier.
For practical reasons, the lawyers chose an airtight defense strategy, which allowed them to save the two women from a death sentence. The defense team claimed that several ‘mysterious’ North Koreans were responsible for orchestrating the assassination but who, unfortunately, could not be questioned. The two young women were victims, who had been deceived into thinking they were going to play a prank and had had no intention of killing anyone. Their strategy worked, one of the women was set free (but the court specified that its decision was not an exoneration), while the other was charged with a lesser crime, which allowed her to be released on parole after serving a short sentence.
Thirdly, people behind the assassination could have learned about Kim Jong-nam’s visit to Malaysia from Kim Han-sol. It is possible that members of Free Joseon made contact with the young man and either set him against his father or managed to extract useful information out of him.
Now let us examine the motives for the killing. We cannot yet exclude the possibility that Kim Jong-nam rejected the last offer made to him in Langkawi, which he could not actually afford to refuse, which is why he was subsequently murdered. His son could have turned out to be a much better candidate for a role within the government in exile.
However, in reality, there were other reasons for assassinating Kim Jong-nam. First of all, his death was perhaps meant to serve as a perfect example of the cruelty and intransigence of DPRK’s regime. The bargain paid off and, as a result, the United States put North Korea on a list of state-sponsors of terrorism, and then imposed sanctions against it for the use of chemical weapons.
Secondly, if we were to imagine that the deceased had been in charge of secret North Korean operations, his death would have crippled the network of illegal connections, which he had been at the center of. After all, the cash found in his possession at the time of his death could have been the earnings from both legal and illegal trade in North Korean goods in Malaysia. We do know that such a market exists owing to Ri Jong-Chol’s case. He was a middle man who earned money on behalf of North Korea and also brought goods under U.S. sanctions to the DPRK. Ri Jong-Chol had been arrested for his suspected involvement in Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, but in the end, he was simply deported as there was not enough evidence against him to charge him with the crime. Immediately after his release, he held a press conference where he stated, among other things, that the investigators urged him to make a specific confession. In addition, Ri Jong-Chol said he had been questioned not only by Malaysians but Koreans as well, who he believed to be ROK’s intelligence agents. The collapse of this market must have been a serious economic blow to the DPRK.
In all likelihood, members of Cheollima Civil Defense acted in concert with South Korean spy agencies or, at the very least, informed the latter of their plans. This enabled ROK’s intelligence services to issue a detailed report about ties between those “responsible” for the assassination way before the investigators in Malaysia reached the same conclusion. In addition, one is left with an impression that, at some point in time, the Malaysian authorities in charge of the inquiry began to increasingly rely on South Korean assistance. And in the end, they started treating the theory presented by ROK’s spy agencies as something that simply needed to be proved.
We should also not forget that the killing took place at the time when conservatives, with Hwang Kyo-ahn as President, were in power in the ROK. Hence, it must have been planned during their rein. But once power changed hands in South Korea and Moon Jae-in organized a ‘spring cleansing’ of the National Intelligence Service, any ties with Adrian Hong Chang and Christopher Ahn could have been severed. On the one hand, the two now lacked previously available resources but on the other, there was no longer a need for them to coordinate their plans with anyone else and they made a decision to resort to terrorism.
The author would like to reiterate one more time that this is simply a theory, but he will not be surprised if it turns out to be not far from the truth. In the meantime, we will continue to follow attentively any news in connection with Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and the Free Joseon’s case. We are confident that a lot of interesting developments are in store for us!
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”.