Raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid
On 22 February 2019, the political group Free Joseon, which is opposed to the Kim Jong-un government of North Korea, is alleged to have attacked and raided the DPRK's embassy in Madrid, Spain. A group of individuals stole mobile phones, two pen drives and a hard drive from the Embassy and turned those items over to the FBI in the United States. The attack took place prior to the failed summit between North Korea and the United States, and the approach of a new one. As of early April 2019, there had been one arrest in conjunction 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.
The attack appears to have been a violent one, using replica guns and knives, and a number of members of embassy staff were later 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 faced some criticism for possibly endangering their lives. The Spanish also privately briefed the media that they suspected—but could not prove—Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) involvement, as the attack was professional in its precision. One former CIA agent, however, said that 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. For their part, the government of North Korea described the raid as an act of terrorism and demanded an international investigation; the embassy and its attaché had, however, at no point reported the attack or any injuries sustained by the staff to the Spanish Police.
|Grounds of the Embassy|
The group alleged to have carried out the attack, Free Joseon (also known as Cheollima Civil Defense) 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". It alleges 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 for what it called field agents, guards and field intelligence agents; the adverts were particularly tailored towards young people who had previously lived in China and were "willing to devote to the liberation of the North". These roles, the website said, required "insight, intelligence and physical strength". The group, says Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University, "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, further noted that "this is the first time we see organized, apparently militant resistance outside of North Korea."
The attack took place just before 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 had failed, and relations had further declined.
The DPRK's embassy in Madrid consists of a two-story "luxurious villa" with swimming pool, surrounded by pine trees at 43, Darío Aparicio, in the quiet, affluent northern suburb of Aravaca. The compound is in the middle of a patch of open land which has remained undeveloped as it assists natural drainage for the area. Since the previous ambassador, Kim Hyok-chol, was expelled in 2017, according to El País only one diplomat and a couple of assistants with their immediate families were resident at the time of the attack, living a relatively "spartan" existence. However, neighbours later reported that a few days prior to the attack, a grand party had been held at the embassy, which had attracted local attention on account of the usually quiet lifestyles of its inhabitants.
22 February 2019Edit
|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)
On Friday 22 February 2019 Adrian Hong Chang[note 1] requested to see the commercial attaché, Yun Suk So—who was the embassy's highest ranking diplomat in residence—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 Baron Stone Capital, a fictitious company—had had a brief meeting with Yuk So regarding the possibility of the company investing in the DPRK. 
Once Hong Chang had been admitted, the remaining members of the group burst in after him; it is possible that he let them in himself as he waited on an interior patio for the attaché to appear.[note 2] They numbered ten individuals, masked, and all but one below the age of 30, and were subsequently described as being Asian in appearance and speaking Korean. They had probably congregated on the open land outside, as they would have attracted less attention than loitering near the front entrance, which was on González Amigo Street, a main road. They carried what appeared to be replica firearms as well as metal bars, machetes and knives. They also brought balaclavas, a 3.8-meter telescopic ladder and 33 rolls of double-sided tape with them.
There were eight embassy staff and guests present—the latter were North Korean architecture students—who were swiftly tied up with ropes, handcuffs and cable ties and hooded with bags. The gang interrogated the embassy staff and beat them; the attack has been described as "especially violent". Two staffers 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 beat up 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.
A Korean female member of staff, Cho Sun Hi—who lived in the embassy with her husband—managed to hide in a second-floor room and lock the door. Around an hour into the raid, at about 5PM, she managed to escape the compound by jumping from the window, injuring herself in the process. Sun Hi screamed for help, alerting neighbours who called the police. When they arrived they had difficulty in understanding her, as she 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. Difficulty in understanding Sun Hi was compounded by the head injury she had sustained. The woman told police that "a group of men have entered the embassy and gagged the staff". She described them as commandos. It was later established that in "police chat groups", her 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 staffer—he was wearing a Kim Il-sung–Kim Jong-il badge—answered the door and assured them there was nothing untoward occurring. Diplomatic law forbade them 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. They saw other men arrive, whom the police identified as they waited to enter.
Meanwhile, the group had ransacked the building, filming themselves as they did so. They collected most of the electronic equipment, including PCs, mobile phones, hard drivesand pen drives. Soon after the police called, the embassy gates suddenly opened and two (possibly three) "luxury" cars exited at speed. They contained eight of the intruders; the police did not follow. Later established to be embassy vehicles with diplomatic numberplates, they were found a few hours later abandoned a few streets away. They were removed for forensic examination. Another car apparently left from the rear of the building soon after, with Hong Chang in it; it later transpired that this was an Uber taxi which he had ordered in the name of Oswaldo Trump.[note 3] All the electronic materiel was taken with them.
The attack lasted about five hours, beginning at 16:34 CET and ending by 21:40. During which time, says Lankov, 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 that a death had occurred were later established to be 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 that "something happened", it was recognised early on in the investigation that political espionage was a possible motive. Common criminality was soon 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. They noted that 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—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 (High Court), which had the authority to order the arrest of those who had then been named. The Guardia Civil and the NCI carried out parallel investigations, each focussing on different theories.
It was uncertain if the raiders were aware of the embassies business that day, and may have been surprised by the guests' presence. Witnesses suggested that the gang members were South Korean. Police visited the South Korean embassy to see if any of the staff could be identified, and 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 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 phones which were seized by the attackers would be a "treasure trove" to intelligence services around the world for what the information and communications they probably contained, and would be "eagerly sought after". Discovering 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 in the first place.
Tufts University professor Sung-Yoon Lee believed it likely that the seized materials could contain valuable information on any recent plans by the DPRK to evade the sanctions then in place against the regime, claims which were later repeated on Fox News by Gordon Chang. Noting further that Kim Hyok-chol had been recalled from Spain to lead North Korea's negotiations, Lee suggested that any information still held on those computers extracurricular 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 vital and top secret information would "enhance their own status".
Following their escape, the gang split into four groups and made their ways to Portugal and thence to the US. Hong Chang flew from Lisbon Airport to Newark Liberty the day after the attack.
On 14 March, El Mundo reported that at about midnight of 22 February, police had surrounded the embassy compound and blocked all the approaches. They entered the embassy and performed a visual search, and, in the course of which found a substantial cache of automatic weaponry. This consisted mainly of rifles and shotguns, but also included short arms. The paper's source speculated that these were the weapons the intruders had used and which they had unceremoniously dumped before leaving.
On 26 March Judge José de la Mata lifted the injunction suppressing public knowledge of the case, and the group had, he said, 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 own statement later reiterated the point. However, the lawyer representing Joseon, Lee Wolosky, disputed the legitimacy of the judge's conclusions, pointing out that he had come to them without any evidential input 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 publicly denied that weapons or violence had been used.
Free Joseon subsequently stated on their website that they had "received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country” which involved “a highly dangerous situation".[note 4] They accepted responsibility for the attack on Wednesday, 27 March. They also claimed responsibility for a graffiti attack on the DPRK embassy in Kuala Lumpur early the following month, and warning of a spectacular in the near future, said "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 declared the assault to be a "grave terrorist attack" and suggested FBI involvement. They demanded an investigation into what they described as an "act of extortion" by a "small-fry organisation" which 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 suggested that the DPRK government would be "putting pressure" on them over it. They said that their embassy staff had been tortured, and summoned their ambassadors to Moscow, the United States and the United Nations back to Pyongyang. This, speculates Thae Yong-ho, 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—the opening day of the US/DPRK summit—February to make a statement giving the assailants' view of events. The group subsequently announced that it 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 that anyone had been beaten or gagged. The FBI, per their standard practice, refused to deny or confirm the existence of the material or whether it was part of an investigation, although they did emphasise the "good, working relationship" the Bureau enjoyed with its Spanish counterpart. US news sources reported, from an anonymous ex-intelligence officer—that the information received by the FBI was "pretty significant". What was claimed to be the film shot during the takeover was uploaded to the group's website and to YouTube. It shows, among other things, individuals smashing portraits of leading members of the North Korean regime.
Notwithstanding the group's claims of confidential agreements with the FBI, soon after they handed them their material, details of the raid stated appearing in the American press, publicly linking the group to the raid. This, said the group, amounted to a "betrayal of trust" by the FBI, whom they said had requested their intelligence and had been given it voluntarily. This they described as a "breach of confidentiality. They said that "speculative" press reporting would endanger its members from North Korean retaliation. Furthermore, the groups failed to gain immunity from prosecution for those of its members who had been involved. Journalist Laura Bicker notes that Hong Chang, at least, is "undoubtedly a wanted man. Not only by the Spanish High Court, but most probably by Pyongyang". In a subsequent statement, the Cheollima Civil Defense website also 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 noted that neither the embassy nor any of the affected staff made an official report or complaint to the Spanish police, although one women—thought to be who had escaped—said she had been assaulted. Larkov describes this lack of concern for the well-being of one's staff and the security of one's embassy by the Korean leadership as being "unusual".
Larkov has described the forcible take-over of diplomatic missions as being extremely rare.[note 5] However, there was little reaction to the raid—even in South Korea—until mid-March when Free Joseon's involvement was first alleged. Although the respective governments made no public comment on the development until Spanish daily El País reported that at least two of the perpetrators had links to the Central Intelligence Agency. BBC News reported that, due to "the US and North Korea striving to improve relations after nearly 70 years of hostility, such allegations could be explosive". El Confidencial suggested that if the CIA was proven to have been involved, it would have been working with other western intelligence agencies. The CIA is known to work closely with defector organisations as a matter of course, noted 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, suggested that sponsoring an embassy invasion—in light of the sheer number of US embassies—would set a dangerous precedent. Spanish government sources acknowledged, though, that even if their suspicions as to CIA involvement were accurate it would be extremely difficult to prove the allegations in court.
The collusion of intelligence agencies in the raid was also suggested by Professor Andrei Lankov of the Korea Risk Group. He views the involvement of North Korean defectors as being unlikely due to the fact that very few of them would have the requisite training and background that the operation demanded, and indeed believed that "(well over half) are poorly-educated middle-aged women from the provinces" speaking 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 so probably under regular surveillance. If they did decide to create such an organisation as Free Joseon is claimed to be, Lankov suggests that 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
Lankov suggests rather that such an organisation would be a front for intelligence agencies, and regarding the assault on the Madrid embassy, the two most likely are the CIA and National Intelligence Service of South Korea, with the former, in his opinion, being "a far more likely candidate".[note 6] At a news briefing, Robert Palladino of the US State Department expressly denied any involvement in the raid by any part of the government. Author and historian of the CIA Jefferson Morley loosely 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 that information could also have emanated from within the embassy to the gang. The police noted that this would explain the precision of the attackers, while the paper pointed to other occasions where North Korea had attacked its own diplomatic staff, such as the former Korean ambassador to Rome who had disappeared in January 2018 and not been seen since.
Sources whom the Washington Post described as "familiar with the incident" denied the involvement of intelligence agencies, however, saying that they would have been unwilling to involve themselves in such a high-profile incident at a critical juncture in US–DPRK relations.[note 8] However, anonymous Spanish government officials reported El País, stated that they were not convinced by the CIA's claim.
Spanish news sources noted that, if the CIA was subsequently discovered to have been involved in the attack then it would damage not just US relations with the DPRK, but its relations with Spain itself, and would be considered an unprovoked an unrequested incursion against both Spanish sovereignty and the accepted norms of international diplomacy.[note 9] Evidence of CIA involvement would cause "uproar" in North Korea.
The identity and especially nationality of the raiders was called " particularly sensitive" in light of the delicate relations between the United States and North Korea at the time. The appearance of being involved with an invasion of extraterritorial immunity. Judge de la Mata issued international arrest warrants for Hong Chang and Ryu in March, and stated that he would be formally requested their extradition when they were served. NBC News noted that 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 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 claimed that 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". He 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 collaborate with the CIA.
- Further proof of CIA involvement, claims Morley, is the fact that the group recorded their action and carried multilpe 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. Among other things, it states 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's until he defected to Britain with his family in 2016.
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