Is the FBI Scapegoating an American Hero?
The ex-Marine risked his life to help North Korean dissidents escape—possibly with the help of the CIA. So why did the U.S. slam him in jail?
A 40-year-old ex-Marine says he’s the victim of a U.S. campaign to make him the fall guy for a bizarre raid on the North Korean embassy in Spain led by a charismatic activist who’s been on the lam for more than two years.
Christopher Ahn was on a team of anti-North Korean regime activists who helped people defect from the Hermit Kingdom. Their highest-profile mission was ensuring the flight to safety of the son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was killed by two young women tricked into smearing VX nerve agent on his face at Kuala Lumpur airport.
Thanks to his dedication to aiding the escape of defectors, Ahn is currently home on bail in Los Angeles awaiting a court ruling on extradition to Spain. Authorities there want to throw the book at him for his role in a failed bid to expedite the defection of North Korea’s top emissary to Spain.
Ahn says he was just a minor member of the team, which called itself Free Joseon, while nine other activists who took part in the caper are all in hiding. He’s already been jailed for a time in the U.S. and faces threats to his life that he says will magnify if he’s extradited to Spain.
Ahn, in a conversation with The Daily Beast, said “I’m not a scapegoat,” but the FBI and State Department appear to have cast him in just that role.
In a plot he says was concocted by Adrian Hong, a well-known activist whom the FBI has failed to apprehend, Ahn, who served in Marine intelligence in Iraq, has emerged as the visible focal point of the case.
“Adrian Hong has been meeting with FBI agents for years,” Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The Daily Beast. “Adrian knew these FBI guys.”
How could it be that the FBI, with its vast resources, its legions of agents and informants, surveillance equipment and all the rest, have been unable to find Hong, whom its people knew so well?
“My humble hunch is that the Hong guy is not only protected by the FBI, but also in some way entangled with the agency,” said a former member of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, talking anonymously. “It is beyond my imagination that those series of operations were possible for the Hong group to evolve without upper-level engagement.”
As for Ahn, he says he admires Hong but professes not to have known exactly what he had in mind when he recruited him for the mission to invade the embassy.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Ahn told The Daily Beast in the conversation monitored by a member of the legal team trying to block his extradition to face trial in Spain. “The only thing I can do is tell the truth.”
Rescue Gone Wrong
It is unclear exactly what happened inside the embassy in Madrid, but we know that all the eight or so members of the North Korean embassy staff were tied up by the Free Joseon team after they broke into the embassy. The activists say they were trying to rescue So Yun Sok, the embassy’s commercial attaché, so that he could defect after a staged kidnapping.
The official line from North Korea is that these outsiders forced entry in order to attack the staff and loot the premises of anything that might interest the FBI or CIA. Ahn denies the claim by the Spanish Central Court of Investigation that he was among “a number of assailants” who attacked So, “hitting him and causing different injuries.”
The North Korean claims, as accepted by the Spanish court, said So “started to struggle with his attackers until he was restrained and his arms were tied behind his back with cable ties.” Ahn says, no one was attacked. The crew was only restraining So and the other North Koreans as a dramatic touch to make the staged kidnapping look convincing.
He says So had wanted to defect but changed his mind after a woman upstairs, the wife of an embassy officer, jumped out of a window and, severely injured, yelled for help.
The police showed up, but Hong—wearing a lapel pin with the image of Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean regime and grandfather of Kim Jong Un—managed to convince them that nothing was wrong.
Signs of “resistance from the North Koreans,” Ahn says, were for the benefit of “North Korean surveillance.”
He also has a ready explanation for why he could not have done any physical harm himself.
“My right hand was fractured,” he stated in a legal document drafted by his attorney and provided to the court. “I did not participate in staging any restraining.” Nor did he “hit anyone or commit any violence or take any property while in the embassy,” he says. From what he saw, “the others were taking great pains to make the restraining look real without actually hurting anyone.”
One of his lawyers, Naeun Rim, citing medical records as well as a CCTV image showing him with a cast or bandage on his right hand as he was about to enter the embassy, said, “The evidence shows he could not have physically attacked anyone.”
Judge Jean Rosenbluth of the federal district court in Los Angeles, which is hearing the extradition case, has refused to accept the accounts of the North Koreans in the embassy.
“It just seems to me clear that this is not competent evidence,” she said. “Those statements that were given with the translation by Mr. So are coerced” and “not competent to be considered as part of the probable cause determination.”
Those claims form much of the basis for the Spanish request for extradition.
Hong and his men did not succeed in getting So out of the embassy, but they did not leave empty-handed.
In the hours after the raid, Hong and the others were able to evade the Spanish cops and flee from Madrid to Lisbon for flights to Newark while Ahn hired a taxi for the six-hour ride to Porto, in northwest Portugal. Calling Expedia on his mobile from the taxi, he bought a ticket to L.A. and had no trouble getting away safely.
According to documents submitted to the court, Hong met with the FBI once he was back on U.S. soil and handed over a treasure trove of electronic items. Among items stolen, according to the Spanish, were “a couple of pen drives, two computers, two hard drives, one of them used for storing images from the security cameras, and an Huawei honor mobile telephone.”
Hong scarfed up all the electronic gadgets and gizmos he could find and after getting to New York turned them straight over to his contacts at the FBI where he had known people for years.
The question remains, how could the FBI, with its vast resources, have been totally unsuccessful in tracking Hong down? Especially since he had just shared his haul of electronic goodies with them.
“Ahn is the sacrificial lamb,” said David Maxwell, with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The bottom line is I think Hong is getting a free pass.” The FBI rationale, says Maxwell—a retired army special forces colonel—is simple: “Why do they want to apprehend him just to extradite him to Spain?... What does that really do for U.S. interests?”
If the FBI was genuinely eager to capture Hong, why did they not stake out the house, install hidden surveillance cameras and deploy their other usual ploys?
There was certainly no problem picking up Ahn. In fact, he had invited FBI agents into his home for a chat soon after he got to Los Angeles after the failed operation.
He had baked cookies the night before, and boiled tea for what he said was a thoroughly cordial conversation. “They asked if I could help,” Ahn said.
Then, “a couple of weeks after they came over, they called and said my life was in danger,” Ahn recounted. The voice on the phone “was saying I needed to be vigilant, that’s how I interpreted it.” There were, he was told, “credible threats against my life.” When asked “what does that mean, how they knew,” the guy had no real explanation.
As it turned out, it was the FBI, not the North Koreans, who posed the greatest immediate danger to Ahn’s freedom—if not his life.
Ahn told The Daily Beast he agreed to Hong giving his real name to the FBI, after the embassy raid, naively believing the FBI would keep him safe by not revealing his identity.
Yet, somehow his name became known to Spanish authorities.
Ahn had told the other eight confederates in the raid that he was “Steve.”
“No one else knew my identity,” said Ahn.
On April 18, 2019, eight weeks after the raid on Feb. 22, Ahn showed up at Hong’s Los Angeles house in response to a call from Hong, who was in hiding.
“I had nothing to hide. I wasn’t doing anything illegal.”
Hong’s wife was there too, but where was Hong?
Hong, for whom Spanish authorities have also requested extradition, wasn’t home and remains nowhere to be seen. “Did he sacrifice Ahn to save himself,” asked one analyst who’s been following the case. “I have heard rumors Hong is a loose cannon and cannot be trusted.”
When the marshals arrived, armed with arrest warrants for both Hong and Ahn, did they have any idea that Ahn, not Hong, was inside? And who knew that Hong’s wife was somewhere in the house picking up clothes for her and Adrian’s baby?
Chris “was arrested before he could see her,” said one of his lawyers, but “he heard on the marshal’s radio that she had been detained”—for how long he’s not sure—before being freed. But could not Ms. Hong have given the FBI any clues as to where to find her husband? The marshals told Ahn she wasn’t talking.
Ahn was returning Hong’s gear—a surveillance camera that Hong had loaned Ahn for use in his apartment to spot North Korean agents or local pro-Northers who might be after him.
Having thought he had formed a bond of trust with the FBI agents who had previously been so friendly, Ahn was held for three months after his arrest before Judge Rosenbluth decided he was not a flight risk. Freed on $1 million bail guaranteed by three friends, he was ordered to wear an ankle bracelet, then remained under house arrest for another year before the judge relented and said he could venture within 15 miles of his residence.
While Ahn cools it at home and in federal court in LA, he still has no idea what’s become of Hong, whom he had met in San Diego a dozen years before the embassy raid.
“The FBI offered no protection, and returned to Spain the electronic goods Free Joseon had taken from the DPRK embassy in Madrid,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, who is closely monitoring the case. “In effect, the FBI determined Hong and Ahn expendable, while still expressing concern about the North Korean state’s will to kill both, conveying NK’s ‘credible threat’ on the lives of the members of Free Joseon, including of course Hong and Ahn,” he said.
Hong’s vanishing act contrasts with his previous enthusiasm for conducting his campaign in the open.
As a student at Yale, in his zeal on behalf of victims of human rights abuses, Hong founded LINK, for Liberty in North Korea, dedicated to helping defectors. Then he immersed himself in another more revolutionary outfit called Cheollima, named for a mythical winged horse whose name he changed to Jayu Joseon, which translates as Free North Korea, under whose banner he organized the failed plot to rescue the embassy’s top officer in Madrid.
Hong proved adept at attracting impassioned followers, gave talks to young audiences, and conducted briefings for U.S. officials in Washington.
Ahn bonded with Hong during the bold rescue of Kim Jong Nam’s son, Kim Han Sol. As a bloodline heir to power in North Korea, Han Sol’s s life was in danger after his father’s assassination so long as he and his family stayed at their home in Macao.
Ahn met Han Sol, his mother and sister in Taipei, before handing them over to CIA agents at the Taipei airport, from where they flew to the Netherlands; they have not been seen since. Han Sol is believed to be enjoying what one analyst described as a “luxurious lifestyle” while still in touch with Hong.
Kim Jong Nam was targeted by the North Korean regime reportedly after working with CIA.
Shim Jae-hoon, formerly with Yale Global and the Far Eastern Economic Review, said he’s heard that Hong, “highly intelligent if eccentric,” is “working closely with Kim Han Sol.”
“The idea of U.S. officials protecting Adrian isn’t so outlandish,” he said, calling for Spain to “stop trying to get him for the simple reason that he’s fighting a devious regime, trying to resist an international pariah.”
Ahn All Alone
Since Ahn’s arrest, Hong or the other activists have not called or texted him, and there’s no realistic chance they might submit testimony on Ahn’s behalf, much less surface and testify for him in court.
But Ahn is extremely understanding, considering the well-publicized desire of Hong and the rest of the Free Joseon crew to overthrow the North Korean regime. “They are hiding from North Korean assassins,” he said.
Ahn, while insisting “I’m not a scapegoat,” told The Daily Beast that Hong was “a great guy, someone very inspiring” but not close friends. “I don’t see why he would call,” said Ahn. “I’ve never hung out with him.”
Now, the fear is that Ahn, who some feel has been victimized by the FBI and the legal system, will also be the victim of North Korean vengeance. “The government needs to intervene and drop this case,” said Sue Mi Terry at CSIS. “He’s a nice young man. This is not a run-of-the-mill case. I do think his life will be in danger.”
With no evidence to prove that Ahn had personally grabbed any of the loot, since the FBI returned all the stolen items, Judge Rosenbluth dropped robbery from the charges drawn up by the Spanish. The fact that Ahn no longer stands accused of robbery, at least in the U.S., is a relief, but getting him off the hook entirely may not be so easy. He’s still accused of illegal restraint, causing injury, threats, and breaking and entering.
The FBI is not commenting, and the State Department had nothing to say when reached by The Daily Beast while the Justice Department eagerly pursues Ahn’s extradition.
“Spain and all of our treaty partners must have confidence that the United States will adhere to the law when they submit a valid extradition request,” John Lulejian, the assistant U.S. attorney hot on the case, told the court. “The United States expects the same in the reciprocal context."
Ahn can hardly believe that anyone would accuse him of wrongdoing. “I’ve always seen it as a great miscommunication,” he said. “This is purely a legal situation. We’ve tried to work with government officials.”
He said his relationship with Adrian Hong and Free Joseon was simple. “I’m someone they call for this particular situation,” he said, “for when they need help.”
That’s a pledge that neither the FBI nor Hong, whether he’s on the run or under U.S. protection, seems willing to reciprocate with a simple statement in his defense.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Ahn had expected to meet the FBI when he went to Hong’s house in LA.