How did Ahn wind up in this “situation”? He is an unlikely person to be treated as a criminal by his own government. Burly and bearded, he is described by family friends in court filings as a “happy-go-lucky guy who is like a teddy bear inside.” A son of Korean immigrants, Ahn has been taking care of his family since he was 17, when his father died of cancer. He now takes care of his ailing mother, who has a debilitating nerve disease, and his 97-year-old, blind grandmother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
Straight out of high school, in 2000, Ahn volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps and wound up serving in Fallujah, Iraq. Honorably discharged, he became an advocate for veterans, then got an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia and became an entrepreneur. He is always helping people, his wife wrote to the judge hearing his case, recalling an occasion when he gave a homeless man in front of a supermarket money and blankets.
It is Ahn’s altruistic impulse that now threatens his freedom and even his life.
In 2009, Ahn met a charismatic Yale dropout named Adrian Hong who had created a human rights group to help North Korean refugees. Eventually, Hong founded another group, called Free Joseon (“Joseon” is the name of a long-running Korean dynasty), with the improbable goal of overthrowing North Korea’s brutal dictatorship and bringing freedom to one of the most oppressed countries on Earth. Ahn began aiding Hong in his efforts to help North Korean defectors whenever he could tear himself away from family and work responsibilities. “There are certain values and morals I was raised with,” Ahn told us. “If someone is struggling next to you, then you help them. If someone drops groceries on the ground, I help to pick them up.”
In 2017, at Hong’s request, Ahn interrupted a vacation in the Philippines to fly to Taiwan to help Kim Han Sol, the nephew of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. (According to the New Yorker, Kim Han Sol had met Hong in 2013 and was aware of his efforts to help defectors.) Kim Han Sol no longer felt safe living in Macao after his father, Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half brother, had been assassinated with a chemical weapon by alleged North Korean agents in Malaysia. Ahn helped Kim Han Sol and his mother and sister find a flight to safety abroad.
Ahn is in his current predicament because of a call he received from Hong in early 2019 — this time to help facilitate the defection of North Korean diplomats in Madrid. According to a declaration that Ahn filed under oath, the plan was to make the defection look like a kidnapping to protect the diplomats’ families in North Korea from severe retaliation. (Some suspect Hong was also trying to strike a symbolic blow against the North Korean regime by invading one of its embassies.)
On Feb. 22, 2019, Ahn was one of nine men Hong led into a North Korean embassy; they entered, Ahn says, at the invitation of one of the diplomats. Some of the other men, their faces covered in balaclavas, carried knives, pellet guns and metal bars, but Ahn says that he had no weapon. He had developed a reputation in his consulting company for closing deals by soothing anxious clients, and he says that he had a similar role here: trying to assuage the concerns of the defecting diplomats. The group tied up embassy employees with zip cuffs, and one smashed some portraits of Kim Jong Un, but Ahn says he did not do any of that because he had a fractured hand. Ahn and the other men left the embassy, with some carrying documents and electronics.
While this was going on, a North Korean woman jumped from a second-floor balcony and summoned police. According to Ahn, one of the diplomats decided that it was now too dangerous to defect. Ahn and the other men left the embassy.
Back in the United States, Hong contacted the FBI and gave them computers and documents taken from the embassy, which might contain valuable intelligence. But soon a Spanish judge issued arrest warrants for Hong. Spanish authorities have an obligation under international law to safeguard diplomatic compounds, — but the evidence compelling their action was tainted. They relied on dubious testimony given by North Korean diplomats observed by the top embassy official. (North Korea’s foreign ministry has called the embassy invasion “a grave terrorist attack.”) Responding to an extradition request from Spain, the Justice Department decided to arrest Hong at a time when then-President Donald Trump was seeking to strike a deal with Kim Jong Un.
On April 18, 2019, Ahn went to Hong’s apartment in Los Angeles only to discover that a heavily armed task force of U.S. marshals was there looking for Hong. (Hong, who had fled, is now a fugitive from the governments of Spain, North Korea and the United States.) One marshal, Ahn recalls, put a gun to his head and said, “Don’t move or I’ll blow your brains out,” even though he offered no resistance. (Ahn was carrying a licensed handgun for protection after being told by the FBI of North Korean threats on his life, but he says he did not take it out.)
Ahn was then arrested and spent three months in a federal jail along, he says, with “Nazi dudes” and “drug dealer guys.” Finally, in July 2019, a merciful judge granted him bail. While Spanish authorities accused Ahn and the other men of assaulting embassy staff, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth found, as The Post has reported, that “nothing corroborates the most serious allegations” against Ahn that he and the others “struck and injured some of the North Koreans inside the embassy.”
Now, a pro bono lawyer is helping Ahn fight the Justice Department’s attempts to extradite him to Spain. (The standard to extradite him is relatively low — prosecutors need only prove “probable cause” that the charges are true.) If convicted by a Spanish court on charges including kidnapping, breaking and entering, battery and being part of a “criminal organization,” he could be imprisoned for 21 years.
Ahn argues that his life will be in danger in Spain even if he is out on bail because that country has diplomatic relations with North Korea, and North Korean agents have links to the Spanish underworld. Indeed, North Korean embassies are routinely used as fronts for counterfeiting, sanctions busting, weapons smuggling and other illicit activities. The FBI has told Ahn — and the federal judge hearing his case — that there are “credible threats” of North Korean agents trying to kill him not only for his role in the embassy operation but also for helping Kim Jong Un’s nephew.
“The U.S. government is trying to send me to a country where my risk of being assassinated is raised exponentially,” Ahn tells us. “This is the country I love and fought to protect.” The frustration gnaws at him, but he knows that he cannot give in to rage or despair, because he still has to provide for his wife, mother and grandmother.
Attorney General Merrick Garland can put a stop to this heartless and ill-advised extradition — and, failing that, Secretary of State Antony Blinken can also prevent Ahn from being sent to Spain. Someone in the Biden administration needs to do something to prevent this former Marine from becoming a target for North Korean hit squads that have a long history of killing perceived enemies of the regime on foreign soil.
Ahn is, above all, an idealist and an altruist. He tells us that he entered the embassy because he wanted to help North Koreans “live as free people.” The bitter irony is that in trying to grant North Koreans their freedom, Ahn might have sacrificed his own.