Madrid embassy raid suspect says it was all a ruse

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Madrid embassy raid suspect says it was all a ruse

Screenshots from a surveillance camera of Christopher Ahn entering the North Korean embassy in Madrid in Feb. 2019 to take part in a raid on the mission. [YONHAP]

Screenshots from a surveillance camera of Christopher Ahn entering the North Korean embassy in Madrid in Feb. 2019 to take part in a raid on the mission. [YONHAP]

 
The only suspect apprehended for a brazen raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019 claimed the incident was staged in collaboration with a diplomat inside the mission trying to defect.  
 
In a letter written to a U.S. federal judge, lawyers representing Christopher Ahn said he and several other assailants, belonging to a group called Free Joseon, undertook the raid on Feb. 22, 2019 at the behest of at least one North Korean diplomat who had contacted the group beforehand. 
 
The U.S. apprehended Ahn in April 2019 after Spain asked for his extradition. He was released on bail in July of that year. 
 
The North Korean diplomat, whose identity has not been disclosed, proposed Free Joseon stage a fake abduction as a ruse to mask his defection, Ahn’s lawyers said. The subterfuge was prompted by fears that Pyongyang would carry out reprisals against family members left behind in North Korea should the defection be discovered, the counsel added.  
 
The testimony adds a twist to an already bizarre case that drew international attention just days ahead of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.  
 
U.S. and Spanish authorities say 10 assailants including Ahn, wielding knives, iron bars and fake guns, broke into the embassy in Madrid after one of them posed as a visiting businessman. The North Korean staff of the mission was held captive for hours before the assailants escaped in embassy cars with computers, hard drives and flash drives from the buildings.  
 
According to Ahn’s lawyers, at least one of the North Koreans helped the group infiltrate the embassy, but then changed his or her mind amid the disorder that ensued when one of the embassy’s female workers escaped the compound through an open window.  
 
After returning to the United States, Ahn was arrested by the FBI in California in April 2019 over his alleged involvement in the raid, making him the only suspect who was held in custody over the incident. Authorities in Madrid have requested that Ahn be extradited to Spain to face prosecution on a number of criminal counts including robbery and illegal restraint during the raid.  
 
The suspect’s lawyers, however, insisted in their letter that neither he nor the other suspects violated U.S. law during the raid, casting doubt on the credibility of the Spanish authorities’ investigation of the incident, which they claimed was based solely on the testimonies of the nine North Korean witnesses in the case.  
 
The letter also contained the claim that Ahn believed the raid had the tacit backing of the U.S. government, based on the notion that Adrian Hong Chang, Free Joseon’s presumed leader and mastermind of the raid, had contact with CIA figures ahead of the incident.  
 
Hong remains on the lam after U.S. authorities issued a federal warrant for his arrest in April 2019 in connection with the embassy raid. He is also wanted in Spain for the attack.
 
Ahn’s testimony appears to jibe with Free Joseon’s activities described by journalist Suki Kim in an investigative piece on the group published in the New Yorker last November.  
 
Through interviews with several Free Joseon members, including Hong, Kim said Free Joseon was responsible for assisting the defections of many elite figures from the Pyongyang regime. The article detailed one operation in which the group helped a high-level official in the North Korean government defect by faking an accident.
 
Free Joseon styles itself as a government-in-exile that will take over North Korea after it overthrows Kim Jong-un’s regime, but few of its leading members appear to be actual North Koreans. Ahn, 38, is a Korean-American former U.S. Marine, while Hong is a Mexican citizen of Korean descent.  
 
This less-than-conventional crew first attracted international interest in March 2017, when it released a YouTube video featuring Kim Han-sol, the only son of Kim Jong-un’s assassinated older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, who credited the organization for spiriting himself and his family to safety.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]  
 
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