It comes as the Trump administration seeks to improve ties with North Korea and negotiate a deal to eliminate its nuclear weapons program after decades of failed negotiations and mutual distrust.
Any substantive ties between the group and U.S. authorities could complicate the nuclear negotiations given the organization’s stated mission of overthrowing and replacing North Korea’s Kim dynasty. The secretive group calls itself Free Joseon, but is also known as Cheollima Civil Defense.
On Thursday, the group released a video of one of its members destroying portraits of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il. The captions of the 34-second clip exclaim “Down with Kim family rule!” and claim it took place on “our homeland’s soil,” suggesting the footage was possibly shot inside the North Korean Embassy in Madrid.
Any desecration of the leaders’ image is punishable by death in North Korea, given the Kim family’s self-ordained godlike status and could invite a harsh response from Pyongyang.
The raid on the embassy generated international headlines last week after Spanish authorities released details about the incident, telling reporters it was carried out by 10 masked assailants who entered the embassy with fake firearms, tied up the staff and interrogated them.
Reports said the assailants stole computers, documents and other items before speeding away in two cars with diplomatic license plates that were later abandoned on a nearby street.
A spokeswoman with the FBI, when asked about its contacts with the secretive group, said “it is our standard practice to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. However, the FBI enjoys a strong working relationship with our Spanish law enforcement partners that centers on information sharing and regular cooperation around matters of mutual assistance.”
A spokeswoman for Spain’s Embassy in Washington confirmed that Spanish authorities have launched an investigation into the incident but did not offer details.
Free Joseon has not publicly asserted responsibility for the raid and on Sunday urged the international news media to refrain from identifying the names of its members for fear of being targeted by North Korean hit teams.
“The regime does not hesitate to conduct assassinations on foreign soil,” the group said in a statement published on its website.
Experts say the documents and computers seized in the raid would probably contain a treasure trove of information valuable to foreign intelligence agencies.
The former North Korean ambassador to Madrid was Kim Hyok Chol, the country’s current point man for the nuclear negotiations with the United States. Details about Kim’s activities during his time there contained in the stolen materials could prove useful for governments seeking an edge in the negotiations.
It is unclear why the group reached out to U.S. authorities, but its published statements indicate it is fearful of a punitive response from the North Korean regime.
“The group most likely does not have an unlimited supply of funds or a vast logistical network. Approaching the U.S. government with the assets retrieved in Madrid would possibly secure the group some protection,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University.
The FBI does not have jurisdiction over foreign intelligence gathering, but it regularly passes information along to the CIA if it is relevant to the organization.
The CIA declined to comment.
Spanish news outlets suggested the CIA was involved in the raid, however people familiar with the operation said U.S. intelligence agencies did not play a role.
Lee said the group’s decision to release the video of a person destroying the portraits of the leadership will probably “debunk the myth of inviolability of the Kim Il Sung cult and routinize the belief that the North Korean people, too, can stand up to Kim Jong Un.”
Free Joseon first drew wide attention in 2017 after it reportedly evacuated the nephew of Kim Jong Un from Macau when potential threats to his life surfaced. The nephew was the son of Kim Jong Nam, the North Korean leader’s exiled half brother who was assassinated in a nerve-gas attack in a Malaysian airport that same year. Kim Jong Nam is widely believed to have been killed because he was viewed as a threat to Kim Jong Un’s grip on power.
Members of the Free Joseon group transported the nephew out of Macau with the help of the governments of the United States, China and the Netherlands, which provided travel and visa assistance, the group told the Wall Street Journal in 2017.
In March, the group published a manifesto calling on North Koreans inside and outside the country to resist the Kim dynasty.