The Underground Movement Trying to Topple the North Korean Regime
by Suki Kim November 16, 2020
On the afternoon of February 22, 2019, a tall Asian man rang the doorbell of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. His business card identified him as Matthew Chao, an investor from Baron Stone Capital, with offices in Toronto and Dubai. Once he was allowed in, nine men in their twenties and thirties, carrying pellet guns, knives, and metal bars, entered. They covered their faces with black balaclavas, tied up four staffers with zip ties and handcuffs, and herded them into a meeting room, before taking a senior Embassy official to the basement. His wife and his eight-year-old son were put in a room on the first floor.
About thirty minutes later, an employee of a nearby gym was driving past the Embassy and came across a woman, her face covered in blood, who had jumped from a second-floor balcony. The gym employee called for an ambulance, and, when it arrived, the woman told the medics that there were intruders in the Embassy killing people. Soon, the police rang the doorbell of the Embassy. The tall Asian man, now wearing a badge featuring the face of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Great Leader, came out and told the police that there had been a misunderstanding. At 9:40 P.M., most of the men drove off in Embassy cars. An Uber, ordered under the name Oswaldo Trump, pulled up nearby, and the final two members of the group left in it. Afterward, the North Koreans walked out of the Embassy looking beaten and disheveled. An Italian I.D. bearing the name Matthew Chao was found by the police.
It was a delicate time for relations between North Korea and the United States. In 2017, the two countries had seemed to be on the brink of war. Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to antagonize the U.S. A month later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. At Trump’s first address to the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man.” But then Trump seemed to have a change of heart, and in June, 2018, he met Kim in Singapore; it was the first time that leaders of the two countries had met in a bilateral summit. Trump pledged to work with Kim toward the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The incident at the Embassy occurred five days before Trump and Kim met again, in Hanoi, to discuss North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. The Spanish government opened an investigation. On March 13th, El País connected the raid to the C.I.A., and suggested that the attackers had been searching for information on Kim Hyok Chol, the former Ambassador to Spain, who now led the negotiations with the U.S.
The Hanoi summit was not a success. The White House claimed that North Korea had demanded an end to nearly all sanctions, for almost nothing in return, prompting Trump to abandon the talks.
On March 14th, El Mundo reported that the South Korean government may also have been involved in the incident at the Embassy. Not long afterward, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, a “shadowy group” called Cheollima Civil Defense had raided the Embassy. Soon, a Spanish court identified the participants as citizens of the U.S., South Korea, and Mexico, and issued arrest warrants. In late March, North Korea’s foreign ministry called the break-in “a grave terrorist attack” and demanded that the Spanish authorities “bring the terrorists and their wire pullers to justice.”
I was at home in New York, watching the news, when I saw the headline “Mexican national accused of breaking into North Korea’s Spanish Embassy.” The accompanying story identified the leader of C.C.D. as Adrian Hong. I sat upright. I had met Adrian in 2003, at the Korean American Students Conference at Cornell, where I had been invited to talk about my newly published novel. Adrian was representing Yale, where he was an undergraduate. We spoke briefly, but I didn’t hear from him again until 2014, when he contacted me through Twitter and e-mail. I had recently published a book, “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” based on my reporting while living undercover in Pyongyang for six months, in a locked compound with two hundred and seventy North Korean young men who make up the country’s future leadership. Adrian’s messages were insistent yet vague. He wanted to meet to discuss North Korea, but refused to elaborate, and we never got together.
Now I sent him an e-mail, though I didn’t expect to hear back. He was being hunted by the governments of Spain and North Korea, and it was unclear if the U.S. would attempt to find and extradite him. He hadn’t spoken to the media. But, within seconds, my phone buzzed. It was Adrian.
The next day, a tall Asian man wearing a baseball cap and a black windbreaker walked into the Times Square location of Dallas BBQ. It was 9:30 P.M., and the place was packed. We sat in a corner booth, Adrian with his back to the wall. He asked for my cell phone, which he put in a black pouch with his own. “This cuts unwelcome guests listening in,” he said. His long hair was gathered in what he called a man bun, and he had a goatee. He looked like a student just returning from backpacking abroad, tired yet alert.
For the next three and a half hours, over a plate of barbecue ribs with mac and cheese, Adrian told me the story of what had happened in Madrid, and about a secret network of what he called “freedom fighters,” including some within North Korea, who are trying to bring down Kim Jong Un’s government. Explaining why he had named the group Cheollima Civil Defense, Adrian likened it to the “righteous armies” throughout Korea’s thousands of years of history, “civilian militias who have mobilized spontaneously when government failed them.”
March 1, 2019, a week after the raid, was the centennial of the launch of Korea’s movement for independence from Japan, which occupied the country for thirty-five years. To mark the date, the C.C.D. renamed itself Free Joseon—for a Korean dynasty that lasted five hundred years, as well as what North Koreans call their country—and posted a video on its Web site announcing a government-in-exile for North Korea. The group was now attempting to transition from a civilian militia to a provisional government. The video was largely ignored by the media, but it was the first time that there had ever been an organized opposition to North Korea’s dictatorship.
Adrian told me that he, as “Matthew Chao,” and his companions had been let in by someone inside the Embassy. “It’s no longer trespassing if you are invited,” he said. Contrary to the speculations of the Spanish press, Free Joseon was not part of any government or intelligence service. “I have never worked for or been paid by or trained with or partnered with anyone at the C.I.A. or F.B.I.,” Adrian said. I found no evidence that Adrian was employed by either agency, but he certainly had some sort of relationship with them. Jay Lefkowitz, who served as the special envoy for human rights in North Korea under George W. Bush, told me that it is not uncommon for advocates and government officials to form informal relationships. “Adrian was on the front line,” Lefkowitz said.
Free Joseon relied on resources that included “pro-bono labor, credit cards, and attempting things no government would risk,” Adrian told me. However, to set up a provisional government, the group also needed recognition. According to Adrian, “The plan was to have ambassadors and a cabinet in place.” He said that Free Joseon had initially received tacit support from members of the F.B.I. But then, he insisted, U.S. officials had turned on the group. (The F.B.I. declined to comment.) Within days of the Washington Post report, the Spanish court had the names of men involved in the raid. In the end, Adrian said, “the U.S. government sided with North Korea.”
We left the restaurant at 1 A.M. When Adrian turned his phone on, it was filled with urgent messages from members of his group who feared for his safety. He put me in a taxi, and walked off through Times Square.
Adrian began texting me nearly every night. He was in hiding, but I did not ask him where, since I assumed that our messages were being surveilled. Despite the circumstances, he never appeared panicked. He wrote in lofty, vague paragraphs, but when he described Free Joseon’s goals for freeing North Koreans from persecution he was precise and single-minded. “I don’t have a particular passion for North Korea, beyond that it’s culturally accessible to me and I am culturally equipped to advocate for it,” he told me. “It’s just the worst place on earth, and a symbol of what man’s ingenuity and tenacity can achieve when organized for evil.”
Adrian was born in 1984 in Tijuana, where his parents had immigrated from South Korea. His father was a Tae Kwon Do master who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. The family moved to San Diego when Adrian was six, but his father founded an orphanage in Mexico to which Adrian often returned, delivering donated supplies and helping to give aid to the homeless. Later, he conducted relief missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. According to those who knew Adrian at the time, his motivations seemed less religious than humanitarian. Adrian, like his father, taught Tae Kwon Do and is a practicing Christian, but, when I asked him about his faith, he said, “I make it a rule not to discuss personal beliefs. I am more concerned about freedom of belief.”
At Yale, Adrian became interested in the plight of North Koreans. In 2003, while visiting Los Angeles, Adrian, then a junior, was sitting with Paul (PK) Kim, a standup comic eight years older, at a café called Blink, on Wilshire Boulevard. They had met when Adrian invited PK to a campus event, and they often discussed starting an organization to help North Koreans. One of them looked up at the café’s sign, and decided to take the “B” out of the name and call the new group LINK—Liberty in North Korea. It was launched early the next year, at the Korean American Students Conference at Yale, which Adrian had organized.
LINK was “ninety per cent Adrian,” PK told me; he became less involved after a couple of years. LINK sought out college students who, PK said, “need to be a part of something. So many young people join fraternities. They don’t want to be alone.” Adrian told me, “I built LINK on Xanga,” a blog-based social network then popular among Asian Americans, where he had been active since 1999. (PK said, “Asians were Internet addicts more than most other groups.”) Traveling to two or three college campuses a week, Adrian would change into his one “crappy suit,” and give presentations about the horrors of life in North Korea, sometimes screening the documentary film “Seoul Train,” which follows defectors escaping to China. Adrian got Asian American singers, rappers, and dance crews to accompany his presentations.
Ki Hong Lee, a thirty-four-year-old Korean American actor who has appeared on the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” met Adrian at a KASCON event in 2005, when Lee was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. “If you spend three hours with Adrian, he makes you want to become a better person, do things you never thought about doing,” Lee told me. Lee helped start a chapter of LINK at Berkeley, and eventually he and Adrian traveled to South Korea to volunteer for an outreach program called Project Sunshine, which tried to raise awareness of the suffering of North Koreans. “You don’t really call someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in the world that is messed up?’ ” Lee said. “He was that person I could do that with.”
Adrian dropped out of Yale in his senior year, and set up LINK’s ad-hoc headquarters above Kyoro Books, in Manhattan’s Koreatown, before moving it to Washington, D.C. By then, there were nearly seventy local chapters. A close friend who helped get LINK off the ground told me, “Adrian knew that sometimes you have to work outside a diplomatic norm in order to reach something meaningful.” Since the U.S. Administration could change every four years, the North Korean regime found it easy to wait it out and maintain the status quo. Adrian admired people who effected great change; among them were Ahn Chang-ho, an early leader of the Korean independence movement, whom Adrian compared to Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Adrian loved King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, which tells us, when confronted with someone in need, to ask not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
In 2004, George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which made North Koreans broadly eligible for political asylum in the U.S. Two years later, Adrian and two other members of LINK traveled to Yanji, in northeast China, where they met four women and two teen-age boys who had escaped from North Korea and were hiding in an underground shelter. If the defectors were caught by Chinese authorities, they might be returned to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned in labor camps and risk execution. Adrian and the LINK workers accompanied them on a twenty-hour train ride to Shenyang, the site of the nearest U.S. consulate, to apply for asylum. But the consular officers turned them away, telling Adrian, over a phone line that had likely been tapped by the Chinese government, to go instead to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, some four hundred miles away. Adrian got in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which also directed him to the U.N.H.C.R. Finally, Adrian hired a van for the other LINK members and the defectors, while he traveled by plane. Chinese police stopped the van on the highway and arrested everyone inside. Adrian was arrested in a hotel in Beijing, and he and the other LINK members were jailed for about a week before being deported; the North Koreans were detained for more than six months. After much pressure from LINK and other activist groups, the defectors were eventually freed and they flew to South Korea. Adrian called the actions of the U.S. consulate “unacceptable and shameful.” In 2007, he wrote on the Web site Freekorea.us, “My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans.”
Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy under Bush, says that Adrian was an “effective and ardent advocate.” By then, LINK had a hundred chapters worldwide. Yet Adrian’s experience in China had shifted something in him; in 2008, he abruptly resigned from the group. According to a journalist who knew him at the time, Adrian appeared to be severing ties with his former life. Adrian told the journalist that he was leaving D.C. and changing his phone number. The journalist wondered if Adrian was going to enter politics or get involved in intelligence. Adrian began styling himself to look older; he grew a beard, and slicked his hair back. He told a friend, “No one’s gonna listen to a twenty-something-year-old.”
That year, Adrian started a think tank called the Joseon Institute, to generate a plan for a civil society in North Korea should the regime collapse. Adrian pointed out to me that North Korea lacked independent courts, accountable police, informed citizens, N.G.O.s, and a free press. There isn’t much evidence of the Joseon Institute’s work beyond its now defunct Web site, which lists a board of advisers that includes a British Member of Parliament and former leaders of Mongolia and Libya. Mustafa A. G. Abushagur, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Libya, who spent thirty-one years in exile because of his opposition to Muammar Qaddafi, described Adrian as “genuine” and as being interested in the parallels between Kim Jong Un and Qaddafi. He said, “Adrian knew I had been in the opposition for a long time, and thought that experience might be able to help him.” Adrian continued to work behind the scenes. In 2009, at a LINK benefit, the journalist Lisa Ling, whose sister Laura was detained in North Korea while reporting along the border and held for a hundred and forty days, thanked Adrian for helping to free her sister. (Neither Lisa nor Laura responded to a request for an interview.)
Between 2009 and 2012, Adrian served as a TED fellow; he also spent a year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Emeka Okafor, who co-founded the TED fellowship program, told me, “Adrian was not excitable. He was a doer. He understood what it really took to deal with a certain regime, and was not starry-eyed about it.” Adrian traveled to Libya during the revolution, and after the fall of Qaddafi he and an activist and TED fellow named Suleiman Bakhit worked on medical services for civilian casualties.
Yet Adrian found the world of N.G.O.s and advocacy groups unsatisfying. “We have all collectively accomplished almost nothing,” he told me. For years, the U.N.’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have voted to adopt resolutions condemning the human-rights violations of the North Korean regime. In 2014, U.N. investigators concluded, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” In January of this year, when Human Rights Watch published its latest world report, John Sifton, the director of Asia Advocacy, said, “The people of North Korea suffer under constant surveillance and face the daily threat of imprisonment, torture, sexual abuse, and execution—and it’s been this way since 1948.” The summits with Donald Trump and South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, have, if anything, made things worse. The U.N. Security Council has fifteen members. In December, 2019, eight of them supported a meeting to discuss North Korea’s human-rights abuses, as the council has done in the past. In order to proceed, a ninth member was needed to sign on; the U.S. declined.
“Raising awareness through college lectures, tours, concerts, and bake sales wasn’t enough,” Adrian told me. “Rescuing refugees through the underground work in China and Southeast Asia wasn’t enough. Advocacy, trying to convince governments to change their policies to do the right thing, wasn’t enough. So then what was left was direct action.” In 2010, Adrian started Cheollima Civil Defense, but he did not make its existence known to the public. Cheollima is the Korean equivalent of Pegasus, and during these years he listed his title as managing director of Pegasus Strategies L.L.C.
In 2014, Adrian sent me a message asking for advice about a “project to prepare new infrastructure for a new North Korea.” Five years later, at Dallas BBQ, he explained that he had been trying to recruit me for Cheollima Civil Defense, now known as Free Joseon. He said, “I’ve been preparing for fifteen years. I’ve been vetting people, interviewing them for a job, essentially. Some within this field are motivated by career. Some by narcissism. Some truly believe in the better world. And those are the ones I was looking for.” Because I had risked my life to tell the truth about North Korea, Adrian seemed to view me as someone who shared his heartbreak about the country.
On January 1, 2015, Adrian stopped posting on social media. His last tweet was a quote from Korea’s 1919 Declaration of Independence: “Behold! A new world is approaching before our very eyes! The age of might has receded, and the age of morality has arrived.” His last opinion piece had run the previous month, in The Atlantic, about the film “The Interview,” a slapstick tale of two white American heroes killing an evil dictator and saving North Korea, which allegedly prompted the North Korean government to hack the computers of Sony, which had made the film. (North Korea denied this, but called the attack “righteous.”) Many people found “The Interview” distasteful, a case of the most powerful country in the world entertaining itself at the expense of one of the most devastated. Adrian wrote, “The day will soon come when North Koreans are finally free, and liberated concentration camp survivors will have to learn that the world was more interested in the oddities of the oppressors than the torment of the oppressed.”
In June, 2019, I flew to Europe to meet with two members of Free Joseon and a friend of the group. We met at a dingy, empty Chinese restaurant in a city I promised not to name. (According to Lee Wolosky, Adrian’s lawyer and the former special envoy for the closure of the Guantánamo detention facility, the F.B.I. has informed him that agents of the North Korean government have been ordered to kill Adrian and other members of the group.) Free Joseon mostly organizes outside the Korean Peninsula. There are thirty-three thousand defectors in South Korea, but Ko Young Hwan, who worked for North Korea’s ministry of foreign affairs from 1978 until he defected, in 1991, told me that, because South Korea doesn’t recognize North Korea as a sovereign nation, citizens can face legal consequences for proposing governments-in-exile. Relations between the two Koreas often vary according to which party controls the South Korean government. The current administration, led by Moon Jae-in, promotes engagement with North Korea, and defectors fear losing their new citizenship by agitating against the country.
Two of the people I met at the restaurant were from the West. They had become involved with the group, in part, because they felt that people who were thought of as experts on North Korea—journalists, policymakers, and academics—frequently misrepresented how its society functioned. “There is no other subject area where the majority of the scholars in the subject do not speak the language,” one of them told me. The testimony of prominent defectors goes unheeded, because they often don’t speak English, and live under assumed identities.
The third person was from North Korea. The member met Adrian around 2008, in Seoul, where the member had defected; they discussed ways to liberate the people of North Korea, who, the member said, are like “frogs inside a well.” They’re curious about the outside, but even the most privileged members of the society are held back by their lack of understanding of the world. “We needed an action-oriented network internationally, and Adrian fit the bill,” the member said. “He focussed on making friends in the West.” The other member added, “Adrian actually did, as a non-North Korean, what I had only ever seen North Korean refugees do: risk his life without advertising it.”
By 2014, the two members had joined the group. “It’s not like there was any salary, a title, headquarters, or a badge. But we have a strategy and a vision,” one of them said. “There is no one else, no other entity in the world, that is working to represent the North Korean people, as opposed to the North Korean state.” Adrian wrote the first draft of the group’s declaration of independence, and other members revised it. The document was crafted to appeal to conservatives and liberals, defectors and those still inside North Korea, Koreans and non-Koreans. “We are not anti-unification or pro-unification,” a Free Joseon member told me. Adrian borrowed from other declarations of independence, including that of the United States. He also took a line from the Chinese national anthem: “Arise! Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!”
In the spring of 2017, between forty and fifty members of Free Joseon gathered in New York City. They settled on a number of priorities, among them rescuing prominent North Koreans. In recent years, about a thousand diplomats, leaders of the Workers’ Party of Korea, doctors, and other citizens who were considered loyal to the regime have defected. Because these élites are under greater scrutiny than the general population, they require elaborate arrangements to flee the country. Once they defect, they connect Free Joseon to other élites.
Often, when such defectors make it out, they change their identities; if their escape becomes widely known, their family members in North Korea may be killed. The “generational penalty,” which was instituted by Kim Il Sung, the original Great Leader, extends for three generations. In 2018, the acting Ambassador to Italy and his wife fled the North Korean Embassy in Rome and went into hiding, reportedly in Seoul. Their teen-age daughter was repatriated to North Korea, and has not been heard from since.
“That is what keeps North Koreans in place. To be able to protest, you need to be prepared to be responsible for the death of someone you love,” one of the Free Joseon members told me. “That is why there cannot be an internal uprising in North Korea. That is why the group came into being.”
Other Free Joseon operations were aimed at demystifying the Kim family. On March 11, 2019, a few weeks after the Madrid Embassy incident, members of Free Joseon spray-painted the wall of the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur with the words “Free Joseon” and “We shall rise,” as well as the Free Joseon logo. Nine days later, they released a video of a person removing framed portraits of the previous Great Leaders, the father and grandfather of Kim Jong Un, from a wall of the Madrid Embassy, and smashing them on the ground. These images are sacred in North Korea, and defacing them is unthinkable to average citizens. Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts’ Fletcher School, told me, “That taboo has been broken. There is a historical powerful symbolism here.” One of the Free Joseon members said, “The whole point of the group was to be a public symbol, so that North Koreans abroad and internally could see that there was hope in resisting.”
The three representatives I met in Europe said that the group had hundreds of members, in ten countries. Adrian estimated that there were thousands, in more than fifteen countries. Both numbers are impossible to verify, and the vagueness seems to be intentional. The group operates in a decentralized manner, so that, if one member is arrested, others won’t be jeopardized. Members use call signs to communicate through encrypted platforms; if they meet in person during an operation, they typically don’t learn one another’s true identity. The secrecy is imperative, because “one loose link leads to people inside,” a member told me. The compartmentalization of Free Joseon is so thorough that, in an odd way, its structure reminded me of the opacity of the North Korean system. The more I tried to follow Free Joseon, the more it became obvious that Adrian was the only person who really knew the extent of the group.
In the U.S., a Free Joseon member told me that he had been involved in several operations, all of them rescue missions involving élite defectors. He said that, beyond the core members, there were people who did discreet tasks; he called them “trusted sources.” He arranged a meeting for me with one at an ice-cream shop on Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles. A young Asian woman of about thirty, with blond highlights, came up to me and said a prearranged phrase: “I hope you like ice cream.” The woman, who met Adrian eight years ago, through her church, helped the group with Web design and occasionally gave it small donations. Sitting at a table facing a busy intersection, she opened her computer and showed me a video of a man in a khaki military jacket sitting on a sofa and signing a paper revealing his name, his official position, and the destination of his exile. She said that the man had been a high-level official in the North Korean government, whom Free Joseon helped to defect by faking an accident. Apparently, he had been declared missing by the North Korean government but was now living under an assumed name in a location that only the group knew.
Other people were recruited for a single operation. Charles Ryu, who is twenty-six, grew up an orphan in North Korea. When he was fourteen, he escaped to China but was caught and returned to North Korea, where he was put in a labor camp. He escaped again when he was sixteen. In 2017, Ryu, who is now a software engineer, joined LINK as an I.T. intern. He exchanged e-mails with Adrian but did not meet him until February, 2019, when he flew to Madrid to help him. “It was an honor,” Ryu said. “For me, it was personal, this brotherhood I felt with Adrian.” He describes the Madrid operation as a historic moment, the closest he’s come to North Korean territory since his defection. “I was really happy and saw the day when I could again be with my friends and neighbors,” Ryu told me. “It was amazing.”
On February 14, 2017, at 9 P.M., Chris Ahn was drinking his fifth San Miguel of the day at the rooftop bar of a backpacker hostel in Manila. He had been there for a week. Chris, a former marine who had served in Fallujah before getting an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, was between consulting jobs when a close friend suggested a vacation to his home town. At the last minute, the friend had to work, so Chris had gone alone.
At the bar, his cell phone rang. It was Adrian.
Chris had a history of volunteering. In high school, he was active in the Key Club; after he returned from Iraq, he worked with a veterans’-advocacy group. Chris’s parents were Korean immigrants who ran a clothing shop in downtown Los Angeles. When Chris was a junior in high school, his father died, and Chris began running the store. The family moved to Chino Hills, about an hour away, where many Koreans now live. Chris took care of his mother, his grandmother, and a younger sibling. In 2000, he enlisted in the Marines. In 2005, he was deployed to Iraq, where he joined his battalion’s intelligence shop. Michael Davis, a battery gunnery sergeant at Camp Fallujah, described Chris as “a good all-American boy,” and told me that he “stood out for his dedication and devotion to his country and to his fellow-marines.” Ryan Fisher, a friend from business school, told me that on the night Osama bin Laden’s death was announced Chris brought an American flag to a veterans’ gathering at a bar. “It was really big,” Fisher said. “Not many people have a flag that big in their personal possession. He was proudly waving it.”
In 2009, a mutual acquaintance introduced Chris to Adrian, and the two met at Lolita’s, a burrito joint in San Diego. Chris was less compelled by the specific situation in North Korea than by the general idea of being helpful. “I’m just a regular guy who was trying to help those who needed help,” Chris told me. “To me, that’s just what Americans do.”
Adrian took Chris to meetings at the Joseon Institute, which briefly had an office in New York, where a few North Korean defectors—including a former military officer—discussed the situation in North Korea. In 2011, they also met for half an hour in D.C. with U.S. government officials who specialized in North Korea. Chris said, “They were very simpatico with what Adrian was doing.”
Now Adrian asked Chris where he was. “Holy shit, it’s perfect,” Adrian said, when Chris told him that he was in Manila. “You know what’s happened with Kim Jong Nam, right?” Chris did. The day before Adrian’s call, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il had been assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport, by two women who smeared a nerve agent on his face. The killing was assumed to have been ordered by Kim Jong Un, his half brother, in the interest of eliminating a potential rival. Adrian told Chris that he had just received a call from Kim Han Sol, who is believed to be Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son. According to Adrian, they were introduced in Paris, around 2013, by a mutual contact. Han Sol, who was wearing a pair of Gucci shoes, told Adrian that he was aware of his work with North Korea. The two men kept in touch. Adrian told me, “Never met a kid with so much money. Kim Jong Nam had stashed away a lot of cash during his life.” Immediately after his father’s death, Han Sol noticed that the Macau police who typically guarded his house had disappeared. He called the mutual contact to tell Adrian that he, along with his mother and his sister, needed to get out of Macau as soon as possible. It was easy to see why Han Sol would be of interest to various countries and their intelligence services. Considered by some to be the rightful heir of the former Great Leader, Han Sol represented valuable leverage to whoever captured him, dead or alive—Adrian called this a “zero-sum game.”
Adrian, who was in the U.S., asked Chris, “Can you go meet them at the airport in Taiwan tonight, and make sure that no one is following them?” Chris threw some clothes in his backpack and headed to the airport. It was after midnight when he arrived in Taipei. He had Han Sol’s flight number, and he found a small noodle stand by the gate, where Han Sol and his family could sit while he scanned the crowd for threats.
The family arrived early that morning, wearing sanitary masks to cover their faces, which wasn’t unusual in Asia even then. Han Sol was about five feet ten inches tall, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a coat, and rolling a suitcase. His mother was a pretty middle-aged woman, who reminded Chris of his own mother. Han Sol’s sister, who was wearing jeans, looked to be in her late teens. Adrian had told the family that Chris would be wearing a black T-shirt and a Dodgers cap and would answer to the name Steve. Han Sol spotted Chris and said, “Steve?” Chris nodded and said, “Let’s go.”
Chris spoke to Han Sol and his sister in English, and to their mother in Korean. When Han Sol’s mother asked what would happen to them, Han Sol said, “I trust him”—pointing at Chris—“because I trust Adrian.”
Chris then brought the family to an airport lounge that had private rooms. Chris put Han Sol’s mother and sister in one room, giving them his iPad and opening Netflix. The sister, who spoke fluent English, reminded him of a typical American teen-ager. Chris and Han Sol sat in a neighboring room. After an hour, Adrian called and told Chris that the network was negotiating with three countries to accept Han Sol and his family.
Chris tried to distract Han Sol by talking about American food. He described American barbecue, and how cooking techniques from different areas produced distinct flavors. Then he asked Han Sol, “Yo, it’s a bit wild you are from North Korea—what was it like?” Han Sol talked about going fishing with his grandfather. The story sounded cozy and intimate—then Chris remembered that Han Sol was talking about Kim Jong Il, the former Great Leader of North Korea.
Late that evening, Adrian called Chris to say that a country had agreed to take in Han Sol’s family, and that he had bought three plane tickets to Schiphol Airport, outside Amsterdam. By then, they had been in the Taipei airport for some eighteen hours.
At the gate, Chris escorted the family through the line and handed the gate agent their tickets and passports. When the agent checked their passports, he reacted with surprise, and then said firmly, “No, they are not getting on. They are too late.” (Since Kim Jong Nam had been killed earlier that week, at another airport in the region, it’s possible that their passports raised an alarm.) Chris looked at the line and said, “But there are people still boarding.” The man began yelling, “They are not getting on!” Chris called Adrian and put him on speakerphone, so that he could hear the conversation. The man then said, “You know exactly why they cannot get on.”
Chris and the family retreated to the lounge. A few hours later, two men who identified themselves as C.I.A. officers showed up—a Korean American named Wes and an older white man. One of them noticed Chris’s memorial bracelet from the Iraq War. Chris told them that he was a veteran, adding, “I love my country, but I am not in the U.S. right now, nor did I break any law. I don’t need to talk to you.” They asked to speak to Han Sol. Chris told Han Sol, “I don’t think you should talk to anybody until we understand what is going on.” (The C.I.A. declined to comment.)
The next morning, airport agents arrived. They were markedly more friendly, and helped Chris book new tickets to Amsterdam.
Han Sol seemed relieved. But Wes had told Chris that he would be accompanying the family on the flight. This worried Chris. Before they parted, Chris, on Adrian’s instructions, used his phone to film Han Sol thanking him and Adrian for insuring his safety. (On the Web site of Cheollima Civil Defense, the group thanked Lody Embrechts, then the Dutch Ambassador to both Koreas, who had approved Han Sol’s transit and promised to help his family. Embrechts refused to comment for this article.) They also took a selfie together. “It was an insurance policy,” Chris told me. “To prove we were not kidnapping Han Sol.” The video also proved that, days after his father’s assassination, Han Sol was alive. Three weeks later, the video was uploaded to YouTube, and the world learned of the existence of Han Sol, and of Cheollima Civil Defense.
At the gate, Han Sol gave Chris a hug, and boarded the flight.
A team sent by Free Joseon, assisted by a Dutch human-rights lawyer, was waiting at the gate at Schiphol. Embrechts was on hand to facilitate the entry of Han Sol and his family into the Netherlands. Yet they never came through the gate.
Adrian told me that Han Sol had called him to say that he had tried to exit through the gate but had been taken through a side door to a hotel in the airport. Adrian asked Han Sol if he wanted to seek refuge in the Netherlands. Han Sol confirmed his desire, so Adrian told the Free Joseon members and the lawyer to go to the lobby of the hotel, and Han Sol would come downstairs. Han Sol never showed up.
Multiple sources told me that the C.I.A. took Han Sol and his family elsewhere, though it is unclear if the location is in the Netherlands or another country altogether. “Governments are rarely unified in efforts,” a member of the team sent by Free Joseon told me. “This was one of those moments that a foreign ministry and the secret services were at odds with each other.” Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, “I assume Adrian lost Han Sol to the C.I.A.”
Adrian called losing Han Sol the second mistake of his career, after his arrest in China. Yet, though he felt for Han Sol—he was a defector who needed his help—his ultimate goal is the end of the Kim dynasty, and Han Sol is part of that dynasty.
“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”
The motivation behind the Madrid Embassy operation remains unclear. Members of Free Joseon maintain that the team, which included Chris Ahn and an American citizen named Sam Ryu, flew to Spain after someone at the Embassy requested their help in defecting; some core members, including Adrian, proposed trying to take over the Embassy during the rescue. The Ambassador to Spain had been expelled in 2017, after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and they thought that an embassy without an ambassador made a fitting target. But the North Korean member of Free Joseon whom I met in Europe told me that people in Pyongyang who are linked to the group thought that the attempt was premature, and the group became divided over the question.
The disagreement was apparent even in interviews with two of North Korea’s highest-ranking defectors. Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom and a member of the South Korean National Assembly, who defected in 2016, told me, “The fact that the world accepts a North Korean embassy as a diplomatic institution means that one must respect it as that. Free Joseon entered the Embassy illegally and tied up people. Resistance is good, but it must be done legally.” But Ko Young Hwan, who worked at several North Korean embassies for more than a decade, told me, “It’s a mistake to think a North Korean embassy is a normal embassy according to the Western definition. All illegal activities—from being the middleman for weapons trade, to laundering counterfeit money, to transporting luxury items for Kim Jong Un—happen inside.”
Thae said, “Why would whoever wanted to defect have needed Free Joseon to infiltrate the Embassy for rescue?” A source with knowledge of the operation told me that the person who requested the rescue feared that his family, who remained in North Korea, would be killed if he was known to have defected, so he asked for a kidnapping to be staged.
Everything went according to plan until the police arrived. “I put the Great Leader pin on my chest and went to the door,” Adrian told me. “My Spanish isn’t even that good, you know, I hadn’t spoken it in a long while,” he added. “I asked them what they wanted. I tried to act North Korean, and back in the main room my team could see me on the security camera.” Adrian told the police that it was a false alarm. The team was jubilant when the police went away: “When I returned, they were, like, ‘You did it!’ ”
Yet the appearance of the police had spooked the North Korean who had requested rescue. Soon afterward, the phones in the Embassy began to ring. They rang and rang. The Free Joseon members looked at one another and wondered what to do. The phones kept ringing, as though someone outside knew what was happening inside. The Embassy’s interior is spartan, its rooms cavernous and echoing. “They know, they know, they know!” the North Korean said. He felt as if there were eyes everywhere, and told the team that he no longer wanted to defect and that they should leave as soon as possible.
Night had fallen. The Free Joseon team packed some of the Embassy’s electronic equipment, then took its vehicles and scattered to different airports, with an agreement that most of them would meet up in New York. On Adrian’s instructions, members of Free Joseon sent an e-mail to the Spanish government telling it to keep an eye out for any North Koreans entering Spain, since people inside the Embassy might be in danger from the North Korean government.
In New York, Adrian met with two F.B.I. agents. For years, they had checked in with him when he returned from abroad. The agents asked if he had been involved in the raid, and if he had seen the Embassy’s computers. Every North Korean embassy has a secure communications room from which covert operations are run. The computers that the group had with them were from that room. “You could unlock all their communications around the world,” Adrian told me. “It’s a game changer.”
Adrian agreed to show the F.B.I. agents the computers, and they arranged to come to his hotel. Before the meeting, Adrian met Sue Mi Terry, the former C.I.A. officer, at a bubble-tea place in Times Square. He told her “this crazy story about Madrid,” she said. They walked to his hotel, where he introduced her to a handful of young ethnic Korean men, who showed her video clips from the Embassy. She was also shown the computers. Adrian told her that the F.B.I. was coming to look at them.
When the F.B.I. agents arrived, Adrian told me, he agreed to turn the computers over for analysis for a period of fourteen days; he would also give them various hard drives and pen drives from the Embassy, in the hope that whatever the F.B.I. found would lead to tougher sanctions against the Kim regime. The computers were encrypted, and Adrian thought that the F.B.I. would have a better chance of cracking them than his group did. The agents asked for the names of everyone involved in the incident at the Embassy, but Adrian refused to provide them.
The next morning, there was a knock on the door of Adrian’s hotel room. An F.B.I. agent claimed that a girl had gone missing in the hotel. He demanded the passports of everyone in the room.
By then, Chris Ahn had returned to L.A. When Adrian told him that the F.B.I. wanted to talk with him, Chris gave him his home address. About a week later, two F.B.I. agents who dealt with overseas affairs showed up. Chris served them tea and cookies and told them about what had happened in Madrid.
Adrian never got the computers back. Soon, the Spanish court identified him as the leader of the attack and requested his extradition. Adrian faces up to twenty-eight years in prison.
During the weeks after our meeting at Dallas BBQ, I often questioned Adrian’s motives for continuing our conversations. I wondered if he was recruiting me to be his witness. Though Adrian focussed on the plight of North Koreans rather than on the danger he faced, the threat of extradition and North Korean assassins seemed to weigh on him. Once, at the end of the night, I asked him how he was feeling, and he texted back, “Mostly just tired.” Then he added, “From doing this for so long without government protection or funding. It’s hard to try to deliver the responsibilities of a government without the privileges.” He added that he was most worried that “the movement would die.” He thought that Free Joseon had achieved just three per cent of what needed to be done.
On April 6, 2019, Adrian told me that the F.B.I. had called him and said that there were credible threats by North Korea against his life and the lives of other members, and that he should take security measures and go underground. He wrote in one text, “Call 911, they said. After they are the ones who outed us.”
On April 18th, U.S. marshals raided Adrian’s apartment, in downtown Los Angeles, where they found only Chris Ahn, who was visiting. Chris was arrested and jailed for three months before being released on bail. He awaits a hearing to determine whether he will be extradited to Spain.
Later that day, at 5:43 P.M., Adrian sent me a message that read, “Contact my lawyer if you can’t reach me. May be getting arrested—can’t talk now.” At 10:41, he sent another: a jumbled message came through, reading, in part, “you may not be able to reach me for a while.” It was followed, at 1 A.M., by a link to a letter written by Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, a Cambodian leader who collaborated with the U.S. in the nineteen-seventies. Before the Khmer Rouge executed him, he wrote, “If I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad because we are all born and must die one day. I have only committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans.”
Soon afterward, the Department of Justice put Adrian on its wanted list, posting the model of car he was last seen driving and declaring him “armed and dangerous.”
A year later, in early May, a message appeared on my phone: “Where did we eat last?”
“Dallas BBQ,” I replied.
“Was it delicious? Your answer will determine whether this proceeds. I’m joking. It was terrible food.”
Adrian had been in hiding for more than a year. He said that he had not been in contact with family or friends, and he remained angry with the U.S. government. “They ask for help, then they put us in danger, they warn us of the danger, then they put us underground, then they make it very hard for us to actually go underground,” he told me. He felt that the Department of Justice’s “Wanted” poster had amounted to a road map for North Korean agents to find him.
On the phone, he elaborated for four hours about his vision for freeing North Korea. For a moment, it felt as if no time had passed since I encountered him as a student leader at Yale. “We are going to remove this regime,” he said. “We are going to confront it with force, with the strength of our ideas, and with our bodies until these people are free and can determine their own future.” The goal of his organization, he said, was “abolition.” How would he achieve that? “There is only one way,” he said. “It’s an uprising. It’s a revolution.”