North Korean Embassy in Madrid raid
The North Korean Embassy in Madrid raid is an incident that occurred on 22 February 2019 at the North Korean embassy in Madrid, Spain. The political group Free Joseon, which is opposed to the incumbent Kim Jong-un government of North Korea, is alleged to have attacked and raided the embassy. A group of individuals stole mobile telephones, two pen drives and a hard drive from the embassy and handed them to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. The attack took place after the Singapore summit between North Korea (DPRK) and the United States and prior to the approach of the Hanoi summit. As of early April 2019, one person had been arrested in connection with the incident and two international arrest warrants had been issued by the Spanish Audiencia Nacional. The suspected perpetrators are citizens of Mexico, the US and South Korea, although the latter two governments denied any connection with the raid.
|North Korean Embassy in Madrid raid|
North Korean Embassy in Madrid
|Date||22 February 2019|
North Korean Embassy, Madrid, Spain
|Parties to the civil conflict|
The attack appears to have been violent; the perpetrators used knives and replica guns, and a number of embassy staff were treated for injuries consistent with having been beaten. Another member of the embassy staff injured herself by leaping from an upper window before alerting police. The Spanish authorities' investigations were kept secret for the first month; when they released their findings—including the names of the suspected perpetrators—they were criticised for possibly endangering the named peoples' lives. The Spanish privately briefed the media that they suspected but could not prove Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) involvement because the attack was professional in its precision. One former CIA agent, however, said the timing of the attack and its high-profile nature would have made it impossible for the CIA to have condoned it or taken part. The Government of North Korea described the raid as an act of terrorism and demanded an international investigation; the embassy and its attaché, however, did not report the attack or any injuries sustained by the staff to the Spanish police.
|Grounds of the Embassy|
Free Joseon—also known as Cheollima Civil Defense—the group alleged to have carried out the attack, has been described by the Washington Post as a "secretive dissident organization" and a "shadowy group trying to overthrow Kim Jong-un", whose government they claim to be an "immoral and illegitimate regime". Free Joseon is alleged to be composed primarily of North Korean defectors but according to the lawyer and North Korea specialist Joshua Stanton, there is a "lack of evidence that any of the people involved were even North Koreans". Two days before the attack the group's website was recruiting field agents, guards and field intelligence agents; the advertisements were tailored towards young people who had previously lived in China and were "willing to devote to the liberation of the North". According to the website, these roles required "insight, intelligence and physical strength". Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University said the group "is the first known resistance movement against North Korea, which makes its activities very newsworthy". Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said "this is the first time we see organized, apparently militant resistance outside of North Korea".
The attack took place just before the US President Donald Trump was due to meet Kim Jong-un for further talks on the DPRK's proposed denuclearisation program; a previous summit held in January 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam, had failed and relations between North Korea and the US had deteriorated further.
The DPRK's embassy in Madrid, located at 43 Darío Aparicioin the quiet, affluent northern suburb of Aravaca, consists of a two-story "luxurious villa" with a swimming pool and is surrounded by pine trees. The compound is in the middle of a patch of open land that has remained undeveloped because it assists natural drainage for the area. According to El País, since the previous ambassador Kim Hyok-chol was expelled in 2017, only one diplomat and two assistants with their immediate families living a relatively "spartan" existence were resident at the time of the attack. Neighbours, however, reported that a few days prior to the attack, a grand party that had attracted local attention had been held at the embassy.
22 February 2019Edit
On Friday 22 February 2019, Adrian Hong Chang[note 1] asked to see the commercial attaché Yun Suk So, who was the embassy's highest ranking diplomat in residence and with whom Chang claimed to have previous acquaintance. This had occurred two weeks earlier when Hong Chang, using the alias Matthew Chao, managing partner of a fictional company Baron Stone Capital, had a brief meeting with Yuk So regarding the possibility of the company investing in the DPRK. 
Once Hong had been admitted to the building, the remaining members of the group burst in after him; it is possible Hong let them in himself as he waited on an interior patio for the attaché to appear.[note 2] Ten masked individuals, all but one of whom were below the age of 30, were subsequently described as being Asian in appearance and speaking Korean. They had probably congregated on the open land outside the embassy, which would have attracted less attention than loitering near the front entrance, on a main road. The group carried what appeared to be replica firearms, metal bars, machetes and knives. They also brought balaclavas, a 3.8-metre (12 ft) telescopic ladder and 33 rolls of double-sided tape with them.
There were eight embassy staff members and guests presentincluding a group of North Korean architecture students; all of who were swiftly tied up with ropes, handcuffs and cable ties and hooded with bags. The gang interrogated and assaulted the embassy staff; the attack has been described as "especially violent". Two staff members later required medical attention, mainly as a result of bruising from multiple, heavy blows. The gang appear to have focussed primarily on the attaché, whom they tried to persuade to defect and then assaulted when he refused. They also questioned him intensively about Hyok Chol's affairs while he had been resident; eventually they left him tied up in the basement.
|Key locations in Madrid, Spain|
Embassy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Embassy of the Republic of Korea
Audiencia Nacional (High Court of Spain)
A Korean female member of staff, Cho Sun Hi—who lived in the embassy with her husband—hid in a second-floor room and locked the door. Around an hour into the raid, at about 5 pm, she escaped from the compound by jumping from the window, injuring herself. Sun Hi screamed for help, alerting neighbours who called the police. When the police arrived, they had difficulty in understanding Sun Hi, who spoke no Spanish. They took her to a police station and tried to find an interpreter; eventually they used a translation app on her phone. The police's difficulty in understanding Sun Hi was compounded by a head injury she had sustained. The woman told police "a group of men have entered the embassy and gagged the staff". She described the raiders as commandos. It was later established that in "police chat groups", Sun Hi's mental stability had been questioned.
Journalists Ian Mount, Edward White and Kang Buseong
The police returned to the embassy and attempted entry. Hong Chang, whom they assumed to be a member of staff because he was wearing a Kim Il-sung–Kim Jong-il badge, answered the door and assured them there was nothing untoward occurring. Diplomatic law forbids police from entering the premises without authorisation from the head of the mission, which was not to be gained, so they kept watch outside and set up a security perimeter. The police saw other men, whom they identified as they waited to enter, arrive.
Meanwhile, the group ransacked the building, filming themselves as they did so. They collected most of the embassy's electronic equipment, including computers, mobile telephones, hard drives and pen drives. Soon after the police were called, the embassy gates suddenly opened and two or three "luxury" cars containing eight of the intruders exited at speed; the police did not follow. These cars were later established to be embassy vehicles with diplomatic numberplates; they were found abandoned a few streets away hours later and were removed for forensic examination. Another car with Hong Chang in it apparently left from the rear of the building soon after; it later transpired this was an Uber taxi he had ordered in the name of Oswaldo Trump.[note 3] The group took all of the stolen electronic equipment with them.
The attack lasted for about five hours; it began at 16:34 CET and had ended by 21:40. During the raid, the assailants "remained in full control" of the embassy and its occupants, even after the escape. An incident is alleged to have taken place at the door, although early suggestions a death had occurred were unfounded. When the SAMUR paramedics arrived, they treated three injured.
Despite the incident not being reported by the embassy or its staff, the raid was investigated by Spanish authorities. Although officially they only acknowledged "something happened", political espionage was recognised early in the investigation as a possible motive. Common criminality was excluded as a motive for the raid, which was described by investigators as having the hallmarks of a cell in the attack's "perfectly coordinated" military precision. It was, said investigators, probably carried out by professionals who knew precisely what they were looking for before they attacked. Investigators said the gang must have been responsible for lowering the power and dimming the street lights in the road at the front of the embassy; other security systems around the building were also found to have been neutralised.
The investigation, which was described as "highly secret", was carried out by officers of the Provincial Information Brigade of the Spanish National Police, answering to Court 5 of the Audiencia Nacional (National Court), which had the authority to order the arrest of those who had then been named. The Guardia Civil and the CNI carried out parallel investigations, each focusing on different theories.
It was uncertain the raiders were aware of the embassy's business that day and may have been surprised by the guests' presence. Witnesses suggested the gang members were South Korean. Police visited the South Korean embassy to see if any of the staff could be identified. A few days later, the South Korean Ambassador Chun Hong-jo wrote to El Mundo denying his government's involvement in the affair. A spokeswoman for the South Korean embassy stated that "we do not know anything, we can not say anything else, we heard about the assault by the press, the police did not come here".
The previous DPRK Ambassador to Spain Kim Hyok-chol had been expelled by the Spanish Government in September 2017 in response to North Korea's continued testing of nuclear missiles in defiance of the international community. Although persona non grata in Spain, Kim returned to the DPRK to become one of the architects of Kim Jong-un's diplomacy with the US, including the failed Vietnam summit. Analyst Andrei Lankov describes Kim Hyok-chol as Stephen Biegun's North Korean counterpart.
Little is known in the West of Kim Hyok-chol's personality or career. It was noted that the computers and telephones that were seized by the attackers would be a "treasure trove" to intelligence services around the world for the information and communications they probably contained, and would be "eagerly sought after". Obtaining private information on Kim Hyok-chol,who has been described as "a natural target" for those interested in the DPRK's nuclear program, and information on North Korea's re-armament program may have been the purpose of the attack.
Tufts University professor Sung-Yoon Lee believed it likely the seized materials could contain valuable information about any recent plans by the DPRK to evade the sanctions against its government, claims that were repeated on Fox News by Gordon G. Chang. Noting that Kim Hyok-chol had been recalled from Spain to lead North Korea's negotiations, Lee suggested any information held on those computers, including information on his activities in Spain, would have helped the US and its allies "to gain an edge in the negotiations" in Hanoi. For the Free Jeoson group, securing such top-secret information would "enhance their own status".
On 14 March, El Mundo reported that at about midnight on 22 February, Spanish police had surrounded the embassy compound and blocked all of the approaches. They entered the building and performed a visual search, in the course of which they found a substantial cache of automatic weaponry consisting mainly of rifles and shotguns, but also short arms. The paper's source speculated these were the weapons the intruders had used and had dumped before leaving.
On 26 March, Judge José de la Mata lifted the injunction suppressing public knowledge of the case because the group had by then publicly "identified themselves as members of a human rights movement seeking to liberate North Korea". The court statement also stated that Hong Chang had acted without state assistance, and the group's statement later reiterated the point. Lee Wolosky, the lawyer representing Joseon, disputed the legitimacy of the judge's conclusions, saying he had reached them without any evidence from the accused themselves. He also accused de la Mata of irresponsibility in releasing the names of individuals engaged in "opposition to a brutal regime that routinely and summarily executes its enemies". The group also denied weapons or violence had been used in the raid.
Free Joseon subsequently stated on their website they had "received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country" that involved "a highly dangerous situation".[note 4] On 27 March 2019, they accepted responsibility for the attack, claimed responsibility for a graffiti attack on the DPRK embassy in Kuala Lumpur early the following month and warned of a "spectacular" in the near future, saying, "the Kim Jong-un regime will continue to feel humiliated if it rejects the order of freedom".
The North Korean government did not make a public comment until 37 days later, when the foreign ministry called the assault a "grave terrorist attack" and suggested FBI involvement. The government demanded an investigation into an "act of extortion" by a "small-fry organisation" that Korean Central News Agency said "should never be tolerated". They said they would wait patiently and acknowledge the Spanish investigation in line with international law, although former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho said the DPRK government would be "putting pressure" on Spain over the incident. They also said their embassy staff had been tortured, and the DPRK summoned their ambassadors to Moscow, the United States and the United Nations back to Pyongyang. According to Thae Yong-ho, this reflects the importance the regime places on its decryption software.
A further two members of the gang were subsequently named; Sam Ryu, a US citizen and Woo Ran Lee from South Korea. Hong Chang, a resident of the US but a citizen of Mexico, apparently telephoned the FBI on 27 February—the opening day of the US/DPRK summit—to make a statement giving the assailants' view of events. The group subsequently announced they had "shared information of enormous potential value under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality" with the FBI, handing over everything they had taken from the embassy, including audiovisual material. The statement also denied anyone had been beaten or gagged. The FBI refused to deny or confirm the existence of the material or whether it was part of an investigation, although they emphasised the "good, working relationship" the Bureau enjoys with its Spanish counterpart. US news sources reported that the information received by the FBI from an anonymous ex-intelligence officer was "pretty significant". A video filmed claimed to have been filmed during the raid was uploaded to the group's website and to YouTube; it shows individuals smashing portraits of leading members of the North Korean regime.
Despite the group's claims of confidential agreements with the FBI, soon after they handed over the stolen materials, details of the raid appeared in the American press, publicly linking the group with the raid. Free Joseon said the media coverage amounted to a "betrayal of trust" and a "breach of confidentiality". by the FBI, which they said had requested their intelligence and had been given it voluntarily. The group said "speculative" press reporting would endanger its members from North Korean retaliation. Free Joseon failed to gain immunity from prosecution for its members who had been involved in the raid; journalist Laura Bicker notes that Hong Chang is "undoubtedly a wanted man" by the Spanish High Court and probably by Pyongyang. In a subsequent statement, the Cheollima Civil Defense website stated, "parties seeking to 'out' those in Madrid have painted a target on the backs of those seeking only to protect others ... they have chosen to side with Pyongyang's criminal, totalitarian rulers over their victims".
News outlets said neither the embassy nor any of the affected staff made an official report or complaint to the Spanish police, although one woman, who is thought to be the one who had escaped, said she had been assaulted. Analyst Andrei Lankov of the Korea Risk Group describes this lack of concern for the well-being of its staff and the security of its embassy by the North Korean leadership as "unusual".
Lankov described the forcible take-over of diplomatic missions as extremely rare.[note 5] There was little reaction to the raid, even in South Korea, until mid-March 2019 when Free Joseon's involvement was first alleged. The respective governments made no public comment on the incident until Spanish daily newspaper El País reported that at least two of the perpetrators had links to the CIA. BBC News reported that because of "the US and North Korea striving to improve relations after nearly 70 years of hostility, such allegations could be explosive". El Confidencial said if the CIA's involvement was proven, it would have been working with other western intelligence agencies. The CIA is known to work closely with defector organisations, according to the Financial Times, with the caveat that such work "does not, in itself, prove CIA involvement in the Madrid episode". Other commentators, such as Bruce Bennett of the RAND Corporation, said sponsoring an embassy invasion—in light of the number of US embassies—would set a dangerous precedent. Spanish government sources acknowledged that even if their suspicions about CIA involvement were accurate it would be difficult to prove the allegations in court.
The collusion of intelligence agencies in the raid was also suggested by Lankov. He views the involvement of North Korean defectors as unlikely because very few of them would have the requisite training and background the operation demanded. He also wrote that "[well-over half of them] are poorly-educated middle-aged women from the provinces" who speak little or no English. The few defectors with the necessary skills and experienced are, he says, almost certainly known to the intelligence services of their host countries and are probably under regular surveillance. If they decided to create an organisation such as Free Joseon is claimed to be, Lankov said it would be infiltrated very quickly.
It is inconceivable to imagine how such an operation could be planned and successfully executed without the prior knowledge of those government agencies whose job is to watch for exactly these types of activities.— Andrei Lankov, NK News
According to Lankov, such an organisation would be a front for intelligence agencies and that the two most-likely suspects for the raid are the CIA and National Intelligence Service of South Korea, with the former being "a far more likely candidate".[note 6] At a news briefing, Robert Palladino of the US State Department denied any involvement in the raid by any part of the government. Author and historian of the CIA Jefferson Morley compared the attack to the 1975 Watergate break-in, writing; "the embassy burglars sought information, à la Watergate. Unlike Watergate, they came by day".[note 7]
Citing unnamed Spanish police investigators and officials from the National Intelligence Center and the General Information Office, El Mundo speculated information could also have emanated from within the embassy to the gang. The police said this would explain the precision of the attackers; the paper pointed to other occasions in which North Korea had attacked its own diplomatic staff, such as the former North Korean ambassador to Rome who had disappeared in January 2018.
Sources whom the Washington Post described as "familiar with the incident" denied the involvement of intelligence agencies, however, saying they would have been unwilling to involve themselves in such a high-profile incident at a critical juncture in US–DPRK relations.[note 8] Anonymous Spanish government officials, however, reported in El País, stated that they were not convinced by the CIA's claim.
According to Spanish news sources, if the CIA was subsequently discovered to have been involved in the attack, this would damage US relations with the DPRK and Spain, and would be considered an unprovoked an unrequested incursion against Spanish sovereignty and the accepted norms of international diplomacy.[note 9] Evidence of CIA involvement would cause an "uproar" in North Korea.
The identities and nationalities of the raiders were called "particularly sensitive" in light of the delicate relations between the US and North Korea at the time. The appearance of being involved with an invasion of extraterritorial immunity.[sentence fragment] Judge de la Mata issued international arrest warrants for Hong Chang and Ryu in March 2019, and stated that he would be formally request their extradition when they were served. NBC News said it was unclear whether the Spanish authority's own investigation had revealed the identities of those involved or whether the US had passed them the information.
According to DPRK defector Thae Yong-ho,[note 10] the computer equipment taken by the group could have included decryption software essential for secure communications between Pyongyang and its embassies and missions. Known as the "transformation computer", Yong-ho said to the DPRK leadership it was "considered more important than human lives" due to the perception that its code was unbreakable.
- An alumnus of Yale University, Hong was instrumental in the foundation of the US-based human-rights group, Liberty in North Korea and also the Joseon Institute. BBC journalist Laura Bicker wrote that Hong Chang was "a well-known North Korean human rights activist [who] has helped defectors flee North Korea in the past"; his "associates", reported the Financial Times, "say he has links to US intelligence agencies". Hong appears to have been arrested in China in 2006 for reportedly helping North Korean defectors there. Another North Korean defector, Kang Cheol-hwan, has stated that, whereas Hong Chang previously worked in "mainstream" NGOs, he had recently moved into increasingly "secretive, underground activities" preparing for "imminent, dramatic change". In 2011 he suggested that the Arab Spring uprisings were "a dress rehearsal for North Korea", and had travelled to Libya to research the events more closely.
- Sun Hi told the police that she believed them to have climbed a perimeter wall also, which El Mundo noted was relatively easy to scale.
- Hong Chang had an Uber account in the name of Oswaldo Trump, and an Italian driving licence as Matthew Chao.
- The group also stated that an explanatory statement would be published, but, according to Reuters, "no details of any operation have been released" as of 15 March 2019.
- Although he does note a number of occasions where it has occurred in the 20th century, such as the burning of the US embassy in Islamabad in November 1979, the December 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru and the takeover of West Germany's embassy in Sweden by the Red Army Faction in 1975.
- This is because, Lankov argues, on the one hand, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is keen on further rapprochement with the north and would be thus unlikely to authorise the NIS to carry out such an operation, while on the other hand, the North Korean opposition are unlikely to trust the NIS either, and would probably prefer to collaborate with the CIA.
- Further proof of CIA involvement, claims Morley, is the fact that the group recorded their actions and carried multiple passports. He suggests that the State Department's subsequent denial of involvement had—continuing his Watergate analogy—"Shades of Ron Ziegler, the Nixon White House spokesman who dismissed the Watergate break-in as a 'third-rate burglary'."
- Sue Mi Terry, ex-North Korea analyst for the CIA expanded on this, saying that "infiltrating a North Korean embassy days before the nuclear summit would throw that all into jeopardy ... this is not something the CIA would undertake".
- The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations lays down the rights and obligations of diplomatic missions and their host countries, and forms "the core of international diplomatic and consular law" that has 187 nation states as signatories. The sources also state that the host state "must take all appropriate steps to protect the diplomatic/consular premises ... while it is forbidden for agents of the receiving state to enter these premises without due consent" and that "the inviolability of diplomatic missions is strictly interpreted: without consent of the head of the mission, the agents of the receiving state may not enter the diplomatic missions".
- Thon-ho was North Korea's ambassador to the Court of St James until he defected to Britain with his family in 2016.
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