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A tale of daring, violence and intrigue from a North Korea embassy (FT)

31 March 2019


Financial Times title: A tale of daring, violence and intrigue from a North Korea embassy
FT subtitle: Report on events in Madrid sheds light on activists working to bring down Kim regime
Date: 29 March 2019

“It was an unusual sight in the normally quiet streets of the wealthy Valdermarín neighbourhood on the edge of Madrid: an Asian woman, badly injured, stumbling down the pavement pleading for help.

An ambulance and the police arrived quickly but the story would only emerge after officers found someone to translate the frightened woman’s words.

Cho Sun Hi’s tale was incredible. She had been in the nearby North Korean embassy, where she lived with her husband, when a band of commandos broke in and began to beat residents. She had managed to lock herself into an upstairs room, tumble from the balcony, and run on to the street.

When three policemen rang at the embassy, however, the man who answered the door wearing a Kim Jong Un lapel pin insisted there was no problem inside. The officers paused. Entering an embassy required consent from the head of mission and none was forthcoming. They stepped back to observe from a distance.

But the man was not the high-ranking embassy authority he claimed to be. He was Adrian Hong Chang, a well-known North Korean human rights activist whose associates say has links to US intelligence agencies.

The February raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid — and a Spanish court report on the raid released this week — shed light on a shadowy world of freelance activists working to bring down the North Korean regime, and on their possible ties with foreign intelligence agencies.

The Madrid raid may offer parallels to The Italian Job in its brazen theatricality, but its staging in the days before the failed nuclear summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Hanoi underlines the delicate geopolitical balance that such events can upend.

Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the UK, wrote in an online column that Pyongyang’s silence over the incident could be attributed to the likely theft of a computer used for deciphering information shared between Pyongyang and the embassy. The device, Mr Thae said, was seen as “more important than human lives”.

The Spanish court report, released by judge José de la Mata, tells the madcap tale of 10 assailants who entered the embassy on February 22 and held staff hostage for almost five hours while they stole electronic devices before fleeing to Portugal and then, in several cases, to the US.

The report names Mr Hong, a 35-year-old Mexican citizen living in the US, as the group’s leader and said he contacted the FBI days later to offer “audiovisual” information supposedly gathered on the mission. It also identified as assailants Sam Ryu, a naturalised American born in South Korea, and Woo Ram Lee, a South Korean national. International arrest warrants for Mr Hong and Mr Ryu, who are believed to be in the US, have been issued.

The story told by Mr de la Mata begins two weeks before the attack, when Mr Hong visited the embassy as Matthew Chao — the managing partner of a fictitious business named Baron Stone Capital — and briefly spoke with the chargé d’affaires, Yun Sok So, about investing in North Korea.

In the following days, the gang bought crowbars, fake pistols, combat knives, balaclavas, a 3.8-meter telescopic ladder and rolls of tape.

And then, at 5pm on February 22, Mr Hong rang the embassy door. It was Mr Chao to speak with Mr So again, he told an embassy worker, who asked him to wait on an interior patio bench.

Once Mr Hong’s team was inside, the attack was quick and brutal. As Ms Hi fled, the gang beat, bound and covered the heads of the embassy residents and dragged Mr So to the basement, where they told him that they were members of a North Korean human rights group and demanded that he defect. Mr So declined.

The demand aligns with the murky history of Mr Hong, who studied at Yale University. Mr Hong co-founded Liberty in North Korea, a US-based human rights organisation, and in 2006 was reportedly arrested in China for helping North Korean defectors.

Kang Cheol-hwan, a high-profile North Korean defector and author, said that Mr Hong, after years of working in mainstream non-governmental organisations, had recently shifted to more “secretive, underground activities”.

Spanish media, citing anonymous sources, have linked Mr Hong’s embassy raid to the CIA. According to a person familiar with the matter, Mr Hong had contact with US intelligence agents, and had urged North Korean defectors to work with the CIA against Pyongyang.

US intelligence agencies regularly meet with groups that help defectors, however, and a possible meeting between such a group and the CIA does not, in itself, prove CIA involvement in the Madrid episode, according to people familiar with the matter.

Bruce Bennett, a defence analyst specialising in Korea at the Rand Corporation, doubted the CIA had any involvement in the raid. “I think the CIA would feel that with American embassies around the world, they would not want to put American lives in jeopardy,” he said. “The precedent would be way too dangerous.”

The US state department denied that the American government had any involvement with the raid.

After turning away the police officers, Mr Hong’s group ransacked the embassy, gathering two pen drives, two computers, two hard drives, and a mobile phone. At 9:40pm, eight of the assailants drove several embassy vehicles out of the grounds at high speed, eluding police.

Minutes later, Mr Hong ordered an Uber under the name of Oswaldo Trump to meet him on a road that passed behind the building.

On Tuesday, Cheollima Civil Defense, which says it is a group working to overthrow the Kim regime, claimed responsibility for the events.

The group said it “responded to an urgent situation in the Madrid embassy” and “contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten”. It also said “there were no other governments involved with or aware of our activity until after the event”.

Less than 24 hours after the raid, Mr Hong landed in Newark on a flight from Lisbon, and days later called on the FBI. In its statement, Cheollima Civil Defense said that it had shared “certain information of enormous potential value with the FBI” but that their “mutually agreed terms of confidentiality” appeared “to have been broken”.

In a statement posted on its website on Thursday, the group said that although it had “bigger things ahead”, it had temporarily suspended operations because of “speculative” articles in the press.”



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