SEOUL–The more the Americans shrug off any role in the bizarre February 22 raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid, the deeper suspicions grow here in Seoul that the U.S. intelligence community had a lot to do with it.
The alleged ringleader of the attack, Yale-educated Adrian Hong Chang, has long dreamed of overthrowing the North Korean regime, which may seem like empty boasting. But the silence of U.S. officials is downright deafening.
Hong, as he is known, purportedly turned over to the FBI super-secret stuff that he and his nine mates looted from the embassy. The group did so, said a proud statement published on its website, at “the request” of the FBI.
“We don’t have any comment,” an FBI spokesperson told The Daily Beast when asked if the bureau knew anything about these guys or digital equipment they seized in their attack five days before President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.
That response came after the State Department flatly denied any U.S. role in the raid, in which a senior North Korean diplomat was beaten up, hog-tied, and left in a basement room with a hood over his head after refusing to defect.
North Korea, known more formally as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, on Sunday intruded into the uneasy silence of U.S. officialdom by issuing its first statement on the whole thing.
It carefully implicated the FBI while minimizing the significance of a gang that may pose more than an annoyance to Kim’s dictatorship.
Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, quoting an anonymous foreign ministry spokesman, said the regime is indeed “following the rumors of all hues now in the air that FBI of the U.S.” was “involved in the terror incident.” Also in on the plot, said KCNA, were “the small fry of anti-DPRK ‘body’”—an allusion to Hong’s group now known as Jayu Joseon, meaning Free [North] Korea.
Compounding the mystery was how all 10 embassy invaders managed to get clean away. Mastermind Hong, an activist who formed an outfit named LINK, Liberty in North Korea, shortly before graduating from Yale University in 2005, managed to get into the U.S. with at least one and possibly other Jayu Joseon members.
This was after they made it to Lisbon, 400 miles to the east of Madrid, slipped through Portuguese airport security and boarded a plane or planes to Newark, N.J., leaving the Spanish police looking like a bunch of keystone cops scratching their heads over what happened.
The North Koreans, for their part, left no doubt about their disgust with the ease the group had raiding and pillaging the Madrid embassy one dark evening while Kim Jong Un was figuring out what to say to Donald Trump when they were to meet on February 27 and 28. (The summit did not go well.)
The KCNA statement urged the Spanish to “carry out an investigation into the incident to the last in a responsible manner in order to bring the terrorists and their wire-pullers to justice in conformity with the relevant international law." The statement added the obvious, that "an illegal intrusion into and occupation of a diplomatic mission and act of extortion are a grave breach of state sovereignty and a flagrant violation of international law, and this kind of act should never be tolerated."
In fact, published details of the Spanish authorities’ investigation make it appear the FBI was at the center of their search for Hong’s gang—several of whom are believed to be Korean-Americans.
The assumption here in Seoul has been that the failure of the U.S. to respond to Spain’s extradition request for Hong and at least one of his cohorts implies FBI or other U.S. government involvement.
Spanish authorities say the FBI neglected for nearly four weeks to let them know that Hong had contacted the bureau about computers, hard drives and a mobile phone captured in the raid.
Thae Yong Ho, the second ranking diplomat at North Korea’s embassy in London when he defected with his wife and two sons nearly three years ago, believes they got away with a crucial computer that “deciphers telegrams shared between Pyongyang and the embassy overseas.”
At a minimum, the loot seized by the Madrid 10 could have had messages and files of highly sensitive, secret information about North Korea’s nuclear-and-missile program and strategy for talks on denuclearization with the U.S. and South Korea. Or so they thought.
“These actions have raised hopes that Free Joseon may be the revolutionary organization that Koreans have longed for to end the despotic rule of mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime,” says David Maxwell, a retired U.S. army special forces colonel now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The sudden prominence of Free Joseon is undoubtedly an unconventional warfare practitioner’s dream; it is a nascent organization with the potential to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power.”
Maxwell qualifies this fantasy, however, noting, “Unfortunately, when things are too good to be true, they usually are.” Realistically, he says “the excitement over this development must be tempered with an objective analysis of the organization, its legitimacy, its objectives, and how it can fit into the larger strategy of the South Korean-U.S. alliance.”
A court in Madrid has requested extradition of Hong and one other man, Sam Ryu, a U.S. citizen, both of whom arrived at Newark on that flight from Lisbon the day after the raid.
Jayu Joseon, formerly known as Cheollima Civil Defense, has said on its website that the information bequeathed the FBI had “enormous potential value.”
Hong may have had dealings with the FBI already—agents he felt confident providing with whatever was seized. Otherwise, after working for years on behalf of North Korean defectors to undermine the North Korean regime, Hong would have known to contact the CIA, whose spooks do their snooping outside the U.S., rather than the FBI, whose gumshoes track down domestic sins. It is also possible the CIA did not trust him, and the FBI was more open to his offerings.
Spanish police initially said two of the raiders, including Hong, had links with the CIA. Here in Seoul it’s widely assumed the Americans at least know who and where to find Hong and Ryu—if they are not already in U.S. custody.
As for a possible South Korean role, President Moon Jae-in is so eager for reconciliation and dialogue with the North that the South’s National Intelligence Service is not believed to have had a hand in the raid even though the NIS would presumably have files on Hong and some of the others. The possible role of former NIS operatives, many of whom have been dismissed under Moon, is not clear.
"We're keeping a close eye on the case since people with South Korean or U.S. nationalities could be involved," was all the NIS would say in a statement to Korean lawmakers. "There may be a South Korean, but nothing has been confirmed."
Jayu Joseon on its website has responded with a mixture of embarrassment and anger over the publicity surrounding the raid. Hong is presumed to have written the statements, which Koreans say are cast in a somewhat awkward, pretentious style typical of one who knows Korean but was educated largely abroad.
One such statement claimed to have provided information to the FBI on the understanding no one would know about it. “We ourselves never spoke to the media or shared any information,” said Jayu Joseon, blasting media leaks as “a profound betrayal of trust” that would “aid and abet the regime in Pyongyang” while endangering those “who take risks to protect others.”
The group also said it was suspending activities after having been exposed and compromised by all the attention. But that didn’t stop them from warning Sunday night: “We are now preparing for big events,” and “until then we will remain silent like the calm before the storm." The reason was clear. "The more the Kim Jong-un regime rejects freedom's orders, such as the dismantlement of political prison camps the more humiliation it will experience.”
The group might actually have made a totally clean escape in Madrid, sans publicity, but for one close call that almost got them caught in the act. The wife of one of the embassy workers, in a downstairs room when they piled into the building, locked the door to the room, clambered through the window and alerted a passerby, who called police.
Hong, sporting a North Korea pin in his lapel, reportedly came to the door and assured a policeman there was no problem.
What happened when they made it to the United States? Did they just waltz through U.S. immigration?
Hong, initially described as a Mexican-American but a legal U.S. “resident,” may also have been carrying a U.S. passport or green card. Again, there has been no comment one way or another from U.S. authorities. Certainly he has spent a great deal of time in the United States. He was a student at Yale when he founded LINK, dedicated to rescuing North Korean refugees. He left that organization, headquartered in Long Beach, California, 10 years ago but has shown up in the U.S. and Canada making clear the need for regime change in North Korea and calling for training new leaders and bureaucrats capable of taking over.
“No action on North Korea is without risk, but inaction has only brought mass atrocities, weapons proliferation, and emboldened criminal behavior,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Christian Science Monitor five years ago. “Our collective inaction has allied us with the oppressor, not the oppressed.”
In a portent of what was to come, a note at the bottom of the piece identifies him as managing director of Pegasus Strategies, whose avowed purpose is to “teach you how to use… the right firearm” rather than treat it as “just an ornament.” The note adds that he visited North Korea in 2008, presumably on a brief standard tourist excursion.
In his wake in Madrid, Hong left behind one intriguing detail. In the rush to leave, he dropped an Italian driver’s license bearing a fake name but determined to be his. That has raised questions among analysts about his possible involvement in the defection a few weeks earlier of North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, who has not been seen or heard from since. That deed would help to explain why Hong and his gang believed they might persuade the North Korean diplomat in charge of the Madrid embassy, So Yun Sok, to defect.
If they roughed up So and others, as alleged, it may have been to try to extract codes and passwords for the hard drives and other stuff they seized. So was left in charge of the embassy after the last ambassador, Kim Hyok Chol, was kicked out of Spain after the North’s last missile test in September 2017. Kim then surfaced in negotiations with Stephen Biegun, U.S. envoy on North Korea.
Jayu Joseon spent several hours inside the embassy. The day of the raid, Hong stopped by a police store selling fake pistols, holsters, knives, chains, handcuffs, ropes, and other paraphernalia needed to constrain eight people known to be there. He also reportedly equipped everyone on his team with micro cameras tucked into their dark suits, recording everything they did.
But don’t wait expectantly for the beneficiaries of the attack, whoever they might be, to come forward with an account of what happened, what they got, and what’s become of Hong and his crew.
“It has to all be denied officially,” said Steve Tharp, who’s made a career here analyzing North Korea issues as an army officer and then as a senior civilian with the U.S. command. Assuming there is outside involvement, Tharp said, “That's how the black side works.”
Spencer Ackerman also contributed to this story.