What Lies Hidden beneath the Mask of NGO Cheollima Civil Defense?
We continue to follow the investigation into the attack on the North Korean (DPRK) Embassy in Madrid and the secretive organization of defectors, formerly known as Cheollima Civil Defense and now referred to as Free Joseon, who were behind it. The latest news we looked at was when US authorities took former US marine Christopher Ahn into custody on April 18, who is associated with the group, while the head of the group, former human rights activist and Mexican citizen Adrian Hong Chang is a wanted man.
Meanwhile, the investigation continues – the court has decided that Christopher Ahn is likely to attempt to flee from justice and therefore he will remain in custody ahead of his next court appearance and until his potential extradition to Spain, in response to the official appeal made by Spanish authorities to the United States to have all the embassy raiders extradited. Ahn was denied bail.
According to media reports, documented evidence has been uncovered in Madrid, proving that it was Ahn and other individuals in the group referring to themselves as Free Joseon who raided the North Korean Embassy, and then attacked and held embassy staff hostage, beating them and urging them to defect. The intruders then made off with hard drives, computers and USB sticks from the Embassy, and Adrian Hong later passed on some of the data stored on them to the FBI. Oddly enough, it was during this interaction when Adrian disclosed the information which led to Christopher Ahn’s arrest.
According to Christopher Ahn’s profile on LinkedIn, he is currently working at Digital Strategy & Marketing Consulting, graduated from the University of California in Irvine and has a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the University of Virginia. He previously served six years in the US Marine Corps, had been deployed in Iraq, stationed at the detention center in Amriyat al-Fallujah, and had participated in other intelligence activities.
As for Adrian Hong, he is a classic wanted man, with posters of him being hung which indicate that he could be “armed and dangerous.” A number of his pseudonyms are listed, including “Osvaldo Trump” — a name he reportedly used immediately after the February raid when registering with Uber. Adrian’s parents are South Korean Christian missionaries who used to work in Mexico, which is the reason why he has a Mexican passport and is a green card holder, a lawful American resident. While studying at the prestigious Yale University, he helped North Korean refugees by establishing Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) in 2005. According to AFP, Hong was spotted in Tripoli during the First Libyan Civil War in 2011. He helped war victims access treatment in hospitals in Jordan. In an interview with the Emirati media in the same year, Hong said that he considered “the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea” . It would be interesting to know whether he had only studied and read about the Libyan experience or if he had participated in overthrowing Gaddafi.
In 2015, Hong created the so-called Joseon Institute, which he himself led. The Institute was engaged in studying whether there could be a sudden collapse in the current North Korean political regime and drafted measures to accelerate this collapse. Adrian is also believed to be the head of the strategic consulting firm Pegasus Strategies LLC, which he describes as a company that uses modern technology to penetrate closed societies and empower the people living in these countries. Some sources claim that Hong was engaged in “business akin to racketeering and private detective work.”
The conservative media in South Korea noted that Adrian Hong had repeatedly invited Kim Jong-nam — the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — to lead Free Joseon while he was still alive, but Kim Jong-nam declined to take Hong up on these offers. The same story was published in the Washington Post and South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo.
Doesn’t Hong have a remarkable biography? Perhaps it is no coincidence that his lawyer Lee S. Wolosky served under the last three US presidents and held significant national security posts. There is a deliberate and active campaign in defense of those arrested.
First of all, the indictment allegedly has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese, and the charges were hastily brought against the accused, having received an order from by the White House to do so, not to mention the fact that it is based on the scripted reports of the DPRK diplomats who fell victim to the attack. This is the position which is taken by Sung-Yoon Lee for example, a lawyer and associate Professor at Tufts University, who is also a major supporter of the fight against North Korea’s tyrannical regime.
Secondly, Lee Wolosky claims that if the defendants are extradited to Spain, then they will be sent on to North Korea from there, where they face the fate of “martyred” Otto Warmbier, an American tourist who died soon after he was released following 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. However, an official from the Ministry of Justice told NK News portal that “in accordance with the Extradition Treaty between the United States and Spain, any person who is extradited to Spain in accordance with a valid extradition request for alleged crimes committed in Spain will be granted all their due procedural rights and other rights, which are granted to all people who are accused and have criminal charges brought against them in Spain.” But both Lee Wolosky and Sung-Yoon Lee argue that the possibility of the US citizens being extradited to face the North Korean “cannot be ruled out.”
Both Hong and Ahn face over ten years imprisonment under Spanish law for a whole host of crimes, including breaking and entering, “robbery with violence and intimidation” and “criminal organization”.
There are also rumors that the stolen equipment was returned to the DPRK, and the Spanish authorities have received new evidence that the CIA was associated with the attackers, although US authorities deny involvement in the incident and a former CIA employee stressed that the raid was of a too unprofessional and criminal nature for that to have been the case.
However, there is already enough evidence here to begin considering the extent to which Free Joseon and the US and/or South Korean intelligence services were connected. The South Korean media reported that the FBI found itself in a sticky situation after receiving stolen intelligence from a foreign embassy, but the fact that the investigative work went ahead and no one attempted to call it off, indicates that Washington was also in an uncomfortable position, having just learnt about the raid before the North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit.
An argument in support of the ties with the CIA would be that most of the North Korean defectors living in the South are not militants or people with combat skills. Approximately 75% of them are women from the northern provinces, who mostly left the country for economic reasons. Even defector organizations whose members include ex-servicemen did not seek this outcome. Apart from that, all the defector organizations in South Korea are under strict surveillance from intelligence. However, the North Korean refugee community in the US is structured differently – it is small, and most of the refugees there are men, who are often former North Korean specialists or have military experience. In addition, there are not only defectors tutored by intelligence there, but they are also given full protection by the Protestant churches.
Moreover, one of the South Korean NGOs admitted to have made attempts to organize terrorist attacks on the territory of the DPRK a few years ago. We are aware that there were plans not only to blow up statues with drones launched from China, but also to carry out other terrorist attacks and acts of defiance by employing both former DPRK citizens and South Korean citizens living in China. This culminated in the mass deportation of South Korean social activists and missionaries from China, as well as several saboteurs in North Korea itself being detained.
The head of this organization (Fighters for a Free North Korea) is Park Sang-hak, Free Joseon’s de facto liaison in South Korea, who often shares confidential information about the areas where it is succeeding. And of course from Park’s point of view, North Korean embassies are “criminal groups distributing counterfeit currencies and drugs, as well as carrying out other illegal activities to earn hard currency for the regime.”
The view we take is that the following scenario is likely to play out: Trump faces quite a strong opposition in the United States which also has a presence in US intelligence agencies, and this includes opposition to his policy of greater negotiation with North Korea. As is the case in many other states, intelligence is often a conservative stronghold, and from a Christian American’s point of view, the atheist collectivism in North Korea is essentially hell on Earth, and any concessions to the evil regime would be out of the question and unacceptable. However, they are ideologically blinkered, convinced that the regime is on its last legs, and that all North Korea needs is a push for it to collapse.
Let’s now turn out attention to the situation in the South Korean intelligence community. President Moon Jae-in organized a formal purge of both civil and military intelligence, by dismissing the undesirables and with the application of strong political pressure. This was of course largely dictated by political ambitions rather than ideological goals, but one of the consequences of these actions was that a number of right-wing organizations which had been reined in by intelligence could go their own way after working in intelligence.
Therefore, employees from both intelligence services (collectively or independently) could unleash a rogue initiative. An independent operation could be undertaken by middle-or lower-level staff without receiving prior permission from a superior, which would most likely not be done for profit, but for the “greater good”, because “we know what is the best way to act, and we must take action immediately”. At the same time, the authorities are forced to cover up for the those who take such initiative, as losing control of the activities subordinates take would be a far greater sin.
And then people who already have these independent mindsets catch sight of a fanatical and determined individual who is completely neurotic, although he has a rather strange idea of how to tackle the DPRK (at least if you look at his persistent attempts to create a government in exile from high-ranking defectors or disgraced members of the Kim family). There is little sympathy for him in mainstream politics, but if he is given support, he could be used as a tool, because however strange his actions may be, his efforts could do enough to upset the current dialog Pyongyang is engaging in with Washington and Seoul. Especially if the group moves on after the Embassy raid to engage in more serious terrorist activities. Officially Washington or Seoul would want nothing to do with the group, but those in Pyongyang may not believe that this organization has no state ties and is acting independently, so it would make a convenient excuse if the North Koreans want to break off the dialog.
Statements insisting that “the US intelligence community had very little information about the upcoming attack” may indirectly confirm this theory, but our view is that the political consequences the raid or other future actions of this kind could have are far more serious:
- The militants will unlikely achieve much purely in terms of their political influence. On the contrary, it is easy to condemn them as raiders, and sympathize with the North Korean diplomats who are victims. Be it for no other reason than the fact that they were presumably innocent people.
- North Korea may well use the Embassy raid as a reason to strengthen the regime and to call the regime’s opponents brutal terrorists. After all, this does offer real proof that can be used to show that enemies of the DPRK will stop at nothing. This is not to mention how the raider’s hypothetical connection with US intelligence agencies could be exploited by North Korea, as well as the fact that most of the attackers are not deserters, but they are citizens of the United States and South Korea.
- The United States will have to prove its innocence and that will not be an easy task, given that the Americans are always guilty of everything in some people’s eyes. The deal with the FBI which the group publicized will be taken on face value as confirmation that America was involved, and the US Department of State will find it harder to prove that “the American government is not committed to a regime change in North Korea.”
- The human rights movement has also gotten itself into trouble, look at LiNK, which was one of the most famous human rights groups involved with North Koreans, but the NGO has been marred by what one of its founders has been engaged in.
- Besides, the precedent was set for the attack on an embassy. Even during the darkest days of the twentieth century, diplomatic missions were usually left unharmed: even regimes that showed little respect for international law observed this rule. As some experts have been correct to point out, Free Joseon are no different from the terrorists who claim that Israeli embassies do not have diplomatic immunity because they stand for bloody Zionism.
However, there is an opinion that Adrian Hong and his gang have a deeper involvement and are more connected than it would seem, and although the information we have received has come from different sources, we will learn a lot of interesting things if they are confirmed in any way, such as who carried out a high-profile murder in the capital of Malaysia and why they actually did it. But that is a topic for another article.
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.”
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