The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The covert group that carried out a brazen raid on a North Korean embassy now fears exposure

In this March 13 photo, a member of North Korea's embassy staff tells reporters not to take pictures of the diplomatic building in Madrid. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

In broad daylight in late February, just days before President Trump met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, a group of masked men forced their way into the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. The intruders tied up staff and took computers and mobile phones before fleeing.

The raid was initially a mystery, but the culprit was soon revealed: Free Joseon, an organization that calls for the overthrow of Kim’s dynasty and had emerged publicly after the killing of the North Korean ruler’s estranged half brother in 2017.

The covert group was behind the remarkably brazen act of defiance against the North Korean government. But as details of the raid became publicly known over the past few days, the group has pushed back against media attention, apparently fearful not only of the Spanish legal system but also the potential to be targeted by North Korea.

Other activists and human rights groups are expressing concern that they, too, could face retaliation and other difficulties because of the raid.

More details emerged this week as a Spanish judge lifted a secrecy order on the embassy raid case and claimed one of the perpetrators had later shared stolen material from the raid with the FBI. In a statement released soon afterward, Free Joseon said that this was true and that the information was shared “on their request, not our own.”

More startling still to North Korea watchers, however, was one of the names of the suspects Spain would reportedly seek to extradite from the United States: a Mexican citizen by the name of Adrian Hong Chang. To many, that name rang a bell.

Adrian Hong had been a prominent figure in the tightknit world of defectors and activists in Washington and Seoul a decade earlier.

Hong had spent some of his childhood in Mexico and later studied at Yale University, where he formed a now well-known NGO that campaigned for change in North Korea. He was a regular at government events and in newspaper op-eds.

Some said the statements by Free Joseon fit in with the man they knew. “For years, Hong has sought to establish a government in exile for North Korea,” said Kim Jung-bong, a South Korean academic who worked at Seoul’s National Intelligence Service until 2007.

“He asked Kim Jong Nam multiple times to serve as the insurgent leader, only to be met with rejection,” the former NIS official said, referring to the North Korean leader’s half brother.

Hong did not respond to a number of attempts to contact him. On Thursday, Free Joseon released a short statement saying that the group’s activities were suspended after “speculative” articles in the media and that the media should refrain from focusing on individual members of the group.

"Bigger things are ahead,” the group said.

Lee Wolosky, a lawyer with Boies Schiller Flexner and a former State Department official, issued a statement on the group’s behalf Wednesday that said “the United States and its allies should support” groups that oppose the North Korean government.

“The reported comments of the Spanish judge are misinformed in critical respects, and the decision to disclose the names of those opposing a regime that routinely assassinates its opponents is deeply troubling,” Wolosky said on behalf of “Provisional Government of Free Joseon.”

Free Joseon first gained widespread attention two years after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam at an airport in Kuala Lumpur.

The group, which also calls itself the Cheollima Civil Defense, released a video that purported to show Kim Han Sol, the son of Kim Jong Nam, and later said they had helped the young man to “a safe place.”

But while that action drew praise from activists and defectors, the embassy raid drew a mixed reaction. Though many also oppose Kim’s harsh rule in North Korea and worry that human rights had been sidelined in ongoing U.S.-North Korea and inter-Korean talks, some worried the tactics used in Madrid could blow back on them.

The provocation angered the North Korean government needlessly and “puts other defectors and activists like myself in more danger,” said one North Korean human rights activist who works with defectors in Washington. The activist spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the raid.

As a young activist in Washington, Hong’s sometimes brash style had earned him both friends and foes, with some admiring his passion and the personal risks he took to help North Koreans in the past — including being arrested in China in 2006 along with two fellow activists and six North Korean refugees.

David Hawk, an expert on North Korean human rights abuses, recalled Hong as a “terrific guy” who was “very bright,” but said he had not heard from him in years. Others expressed similar positive memories of working with Hong.

In an interview with VOA Korea this month, U.S.-based defector Joseph Kim described his gratitude to Hong for his aid in helping him escape North Korea. “I was really moved when he came to see us and listened to each one of us as we shared our escape journey to China,” he said.

While studying at Yale University in 2004, Hong had formed the group Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), now a well-known group that primarily works with defectors. But Hong left the group “abruptly” in 2008 and has not been involved since, LiNK’s president and chief executive Hannah Song said.

Later, Hong formed Pegasus Strategies, an advisory firm, and was listed as president of a North Korea-focused group called the Joseon Institute. He appears to have broadened his interests to include the Middle East, traveling to Libya in 2011.

“I consider the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea,” he said in an interview with the National that year.

Though he was low-profile, Hong kept his links to the North Korea-watching world, testifying in front of Canada’s Senate in 2016 about Pyongyang’s human rights abuses. Park Sang Hak, a prominent North Korean defector, said he had last seen Hong in Washington in June 2018, when they both attended a meeting at the Director of National Intelligence.

Park said that Hong was a “a smart guy with bold thoughts” and that he “engaged in radical activities to bring down dictatorships.”

There has been widespread speculation in both the Spanish and South Korean media that the group has ties to the CIA. South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo, the country’s main evening conservative newspaper, published an editorial Thursday that said the “U.S. seems to be unofficially involved and providing support” to Free Joseon.

State Department spokesman Robert J. Palladino said Tuesday that the U.S. government “had nothing to do” with the embassy incident.

Kim Jung-bong, the former NIS official, said while he thought the Free Joseon movement was probably in contact with the CIA, he doubted the U.S. intelligence community would have supported the embassy raid.

“Their moves were too sloppy,” Kim Jung-bong said.

It was not immediately clear how the group could have afforded to carry out raids in a foreign country or hire a prestigious law firm such as Boies Schiller Flexner.

Park Sun-young, a former South Korean lawmaker who runs an advocacy group called Dream Makers for North Korea, said she had been surprised by the group’s approach but understands the motivation.

“Campaigning for human rights in North Korea can be exhausting, given how it’s so hard to get our voices heard,” Park said. “The frustration leads many to give up activism, while some turn to radical pursuits. Free Joseon apparently chose the latter path and created an international spectacle.”

Kim reported from Seoul.