2021-07-24 03:25:41 North Korea Escape Plan Could Send US Man To Jail
North Korea Escape Plan Could Send US Man To Jail
The plan had already been finalized by the time Christopher Ahn signed on to the mission inside North Korea’s embassy in Madrid. Others had planned how to restrain the staff, gather any useful intel materials, and, most importantly, how to make it appear as if the diplomat they were grabbing was being kidnapped rather than defecting — a ruse that would spare his relatives back home from brutal retribution.
The plan was devised by members of Cheollima Civil Defense, a covert organization formed to aid defectors from North Korea in their escape as part of a larger plan to destabilize the Kim dynasty. But Ahn was no hired mercenary. He was a volunteer who had helped on tamer missions by assuaging the fears of would-be defectors who were afraid of what might happen if they broke free. He’d arrived in Spain that morning, knowing nothing but that the group needed his help.
Hours later, the group received an unwelcome surprise inside the embassy’s basement: the diplomat spooked and changed his mind. After all, he wouldn’t be defecting. Ahn and his colleagues snuck out of the embassy and into getaway cars.
Several weeks later, back in Los Angeles, Ahn welcomed two FBI agents into his home and told them the story over tea and homemade macadamia nut and white chocolate cookies. Because Cheollima’s founder frequently met with the same FBI agents to relay information from the group’s operations around the world, Ahn assumed the FBI wanted the details for its own intelligence purposes. Perhaps it wanted to help keep him safe, as the agents warned him shortly after the meeting that they had credible intelligence that the North Korean government was planning to assassinate him.
Ahn went to the Cheollima founder’s apartment a few days later to drop off some boxes. US Marshals were waiting for the founder inside, but Ahn was arrested instead.
Authorities in Spain were treating the incident as if it were a real kidnapping, and Ahn was identified as a key conspirator. Even more surprising, the FBI was assisting Spanish prosecutors. A federal judge in Los Angeles will soon make a decision on whether Ahn should be extradited to Madrid, where he faces up to 24 years in prison on charges of illegal entry, assault, illegal confinement, and being a member of a criminal organization.
Authorities in Spain pointed to the kidnapping paraphernalia left behind by Cheollima, which included balaclavas and fake guns. They have also obtained sworn testimony from North Korean diplomats inside the embassy, including the would-be defector, who stated that the Cheollima men attacked the diplomats and that he had not consented to the mission and had never desired to flee his country.
Members of Ahn and Cheollima pointed out that this is exactly what you’d expect him to say given the dangers he faces at home. The group was responding to a legitimate call for assistance, they claimed, and would never try to force someone to leave against their will — as evidenced by their retreat after the diplomat changed his mind. “Would anyone raid an embassy in the hopes of convincing someone to defect?” Ahn stated. “Not at all.”
Cheollima had previously pulled off high-octane missions, such as months earlier when a diplomat in North Korea’s Rome embassy told his colleagues he and his wife were going for a walk, then ducked into a nearby waiting car. Nonetheless, the Madrid operation was a risky escalation for the group and its founder, Adrian Hong, an activist-turned-revolutionary.
However, Ahn was not the mastermind behind the kidnapping ruse. According to a BuzzFeed News investigation based on accounts from members of the group and others familiar with the events, as well as Spanish court documents and law enforcement testimony, Ahn was in fact a helping hand who tagged along on the premise that the diplomat wanted to flee the Kim regime. Nonetheless, Ahn has become embroiled in a delicate geopolitical incident involving multiple Western governments, a notoriously repressive authoritarian government, and an independent grassroots network openly plotting its demise.
According to a person familiar with the Spanish prosecution, Spanish authorities believed Cheollima was acting on behalf of or in collaboration with US intelligence, but their American counterparts denied any connection. Those denials aided the decision to charge, with some on the Spanish side believing that the US would not allow any Cheollima members to be extradited, proving that they were intelligence agents.
The Department of Justice, on the other hand, is pursuing extradition for Ahn, the only member of the group in custody. Others, including Hong, have gone into hiding. The Department of Justice, the FBI, and Spanish law enforcement all declined to comment.
Ahn was about to launch a food supplement company when he was arrested. It was shattered, and he now wears an ankle monitor and can’t go out at night or more than 15 miles from home. According to the judge in his case, he appears to be a “good and honorable man.” Ahn’s attorney has argued that extraditing him to Spain puts him at greater risk of assassination because Spain has diplomatic relations with North Korea, making it easier for North Koreans to travel to Madrid to target him. However, under the US-Spain extradition treaty, the Justice Department is required to send him to Madrid if there is probable cause — a low burden of proof — to bring him on trial there for crimes that would also be crimes in the US.
Ahn, 40, said he jumped on a plane to Madrid on the spur of the moment for the same reason he had participated in previous Cheollima missions: to help people. “I’m just a guy trying to do the right thing,” he explained.
Ahn didn’t think much about North Korea when he was a kid. His parents, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea before he was born, instilled in him the importance of assimilation into American culture. His mother, aunt, and grandmother preserved his Korean heritage through songs, fables, and traditional foods like beef radish soup and omurice. But he grew up in a Los Angeles suburb like any other American boy, playing baseball and eating apple pie.
Young Chul Ahn’s father, Young Chul Ahn, a former US Air Force radar technician, founded Zannini in the 1990s to evoke high-quality Italian artisanship. He made deals with Chinese manufacturers, and everything was going swimmingly until he started having stomach problems. A biopsy yielded unexpected results, so another was ordered. Cancer of the stomach. He died four days later, leaving 17-year-old Christopher as the man of the house.
Ahn and his mother needed to get the trousers out of China for the family business to survive, so they kept Young Chul’s death a secret for seven months. Ahn went to high school during the day and ran the company at night, telling the Chinese factory owners that his father was away and had given him authority to make decisions in the meantime. When the product arrived in Los Angeles, Ahn and his mother flew to China to make amends. In memory of Ahn’s father, the factory owners agreed to continue working with him and his mother.
Ahn enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve after graduating from high school. “I wanted to find the quickest way to become a man,” he explained. While he was in boot camp, his mother continued to send him clothing swatches so he could make purchasing decisions for Zannini products. After several months of preparation, Ahn enrolled at the University of California, Irvine, to study political science. Ahn’s unit deployed to Iraq in 2005, a year after graduation, where he worked as an intelligence analyst in Fallujah.
In his spare time, Ahn told others about how a US soldier saved his aunt during the Korean War. His grandmother was fleeing Seoul with her two daughters when she became separated from Ahn’s aunt, who was only a toddler at the time. When she found the soldier, all she could say in English was, “Baby, baby!” The soldier understood and assisted her in locating the child.
“That guy changed our lives completely,” Ahn said. “That soldier is regarded as a true hero by our family.”
He spent time in Washington, D.C. after leaving the Marines. He became a member of a veterans advocacy group led by David Bellavia, the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Iraq War. According to Bellavia, Ahn’s perspective on the Iraq War and what it meant to be a soldier shifted. “I looked at the enemy as someone I had to pacify by killing them,” Bellavia explained. “It was always about the people who were victimized for him.” I’ve never met a uniformed person who was so compassionate.”
After the 2008 financial crisis, funding dried up, and Ahn was left wondering what to do with his life. That’s when he met Adrian Hong, a charismatic and self-assured 25-year-old who was also trying to figure out his future.
While a student at Yale, Hong founded a major humanitarian organization called Liberty in North Korea. He worked as a consultant to startups during the day, but Hong was increasingly convinced that no country or organization on the planet was going to do anything to alleviate the deplorable conditions that millions of North Koreans were forced to endure in the world’s most totalitarian state.
He’d already had some tense encounters, including being arrested in China in 2006 while attempting to help six North Koreans flee. He was released as a result of pressure from US officials. North Koreans were also released, which is unusual because China usually sends escapees back over the border, referring to them as “economic migrants” rather than asylum seekers.
Ahn didn’t usually seek out such high-octane adventures. “He’s not someone I think of as a door kicker,” a classmate at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business told BuzzFeed News. “He’s the kind of guy with a big heart who you can count on to listen to you.”
However, Ahn was inspired by Hong’s sense of purpose. Ahn was on his way to Darden, but he asked Hong to keep in touch and let him know if he could ever help.
“Where have you gone?” Hong inquired. Hong was overjoyed when Ahn told him he was in the Philippines. Ahn could get to Taiwan faster than anyone else in Hong’s loose network of volunteers known as Cheollima Civil Defense, named after a mythical flying horse from Korean folklore. Hong had progressed from supporter to instigator, sending anti-Kim propaganda into North Korea and establishing the foundations of an exile government. He was especially inspired by Libya’s opposition movement against Muammar Gaddafi, which he learned about firsthand during the country’s civil war in 2011. Throughout this time, Hong and Ahn kept in touch, but Ahn had only attended occasional Cheollima meetings and had never been involved in any major activities.
It was February of this year. Two young women smeared a nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong Nam, North Korea’s half brother, at the airport in Kuala Lumpur the day before Hong called Ahn. Jong Nam had been living outside the country for years and had shown no signs of wanting to challenge his half brother’s claim to rule the country, but North Korean agents still recruited the women and oversaw the assassination.
According to Ahn, after Jong Nam was killed, his son Kim Han Sol contacted Hong for assistance, telling him that their usual police guard in Macau had disappeared and they feared for their safety. With his father no longer alive, Han Sol was the only member of that bloodline who could legitimately claim to be a descendant of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Hong instructed them to travel to Taiwan, a relatively neutral territory, while he sought a country to offer them asylum. And he asked Ahn to purchase their tickets and accompany them as an escort. Ahn boarded the next flight to Taiwan.
Han Sol, who had arrived from Macau, greeted Ahn at the airport with the codename “Steve.” Ahn escorted them to a lounge. He spoke softly in Korean to Han Sol’s mother and handed over his iPad to Han Sol’s teenage sister to watch Netflix.
Finally, word came that they would be granted asylum in the Netherlands. Ahn purchased more tickets with his credit card and drove the family to the gate, but they were denied boarding by an airport official who was concerned about their North Korean passports.
“People say we’re the Underground Railroad, but it was really just me buying tickets on Expedia with my credit card,” Ahn explained.
Within hours, two men claiming to be from the US CIA arrived and asked to speak with the family. After more than a day of waiting, airport officials agreed to allow the family to fly to the Netherlands as planned. Ahn purchased yet another round-trip ticket.
A Cheollima team, including a lawyer specializing in political asylums, waited at the Amsterdam airport, but the family never emerged from customs. Hong informed Ahn that he believed the CIA had apprehended them and taken them to an undisclosed location.
The mission delighted Ahn, and he felt it reflected Cheollima’s charitable intentions. Despite the mysterious appearance of Cheollima’s website, which included ciphers like “Golden Bell Forsythia 764099 383642 708027 021412 345034,” Ahn said most of the members he met were “yuppies” trying to help people.
“They’re good kids who listened to their parents, got good grades, got good jobs, and followed the rules,” he explained. “They are people who believe that by banding together, individuals can make a difference in the world… It is not #idealism; it is reality.”
According to Ahn, Hong came across as a reluctant leader, idealistic and motivated but burdened by how much he’d taken on.
“Adrian was exhausted as a result of this,” Ahn said. “He was broke as a result of it, but he felt that if he didn’t do it, no one else would.”
A message appeared on Ahn’s Signal in February 2019. In Spain, there was a mission: Was he willing to go along with it?
Ahn had done a few smaller missions since Taipei, but nothing major. He declined to provide specifics, but said it involved calming the fears of potential defectors in Europe. He initially declined the new operation, but at the last minute decided he could spare a three-day weekend.
On February 22, he landed in Madrid with no idea what this mission was about. He didn’t even notice how delicate the situation was: Donald Trump was only five days away from meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.
Ahn met up with Cheollima members at an Airbnb. He took a shower and ate a sandwich before receiving a comprehensive briefing from Hong, who was personally leading the mission.
According to Hong, the senior-most official at the Madrid embassy, a commercial attaché named Yun Suk So, had informed the group that he wanted to defect along with other members of the embassy. Hong and other embassy personnel had been preparing for weeks, and Hong had already visited the embassy as Matthew Chao, the CEO of a fictitious company in Dubai called Baron Stone Capital.
Only a few months earlier, in November 2018, Cheollima assisted in the rescue of North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, Jo Song Gil, and his wife from Rome, in a mission in which Ahn was not involved. Their daughter, however, was left behind in the midst of the chaos of their flight for freedom. Soon after, she was escorted back to Pyongyang, where she faced a life of near-certain misery as the child of traitors. If one member of a family is accused of a crime or disloyalty in North Korea, three generations of their family are imprisoned in state-run camps as punishment.
Diplomats live in constant fear of being accused of betraying their country. They always travel to meetings in pairs so they can keep an eye on each other. He was terrified that he and his family were being watched at all times, even in the embassy.
Hong’s solution was to fabricate the appearance of a kidnapping. If the mission was successful, the group would not take any public credit for it, and the North Korean government would be at a loss as to where to direct its rage. Hong and another member had purchased Mace spray, crowbars, plastic restraints, and metal handcuffs in addition to the imitation guns and balaclavas. They’d also purchased candy and toys for So’s son.
The group’s primary goal was to get the attaché, his wife, and their son out of the embassy, but they also had some secondary goals. They would try to persuade other officials to join them if at all possible. They would also use their presence inside the embassy — technically North Korean territory — to create anti-regime propaganda videos. Any information gathered would be a bonus.
“I was taken aback by the plan’s ferocity,” Ahn said. It was the most “kinetic” operation he’d heard of since the group’s inception, but he was relieved that they were aiming to get in and out in minutes rather than spend hours inside. After learning about the Italian operation, he decided to stage a kidnapping to protect defectors.
Ahn wasn’t planning on doing anything physically strenuous because he had a fractured wrist at the time and severe back pain that required him to use a cane. The Department of Veterans Affairs has given him a disability rating of 60% due to the wear and tear of the Marine Corps.
Because the group had been planning for weeks, Ahn stated that he would leave the operational details to the other members. The main thing on his mind that night was organizing a large fish barbecue at the Airbnb to welcome the North Koreans and celebrate their bravery.
“I was making a grocery list,” he explained.
Cheollima members are seen entering the North Korean embassy in surveillance camera footage. The Central District of California United States District Court
Hong, Ahn, and eight other Cheollima members stood at the door of the North Korean embassy shortly before 4:40 p.m. on the same day he arrived. Several other members were in cars nearby, waiting for the exfiltration.
Hong, dressed in a black suit and a white polka-dot tie, pressed the buzzer, informing the groundskeeper that he had an appointment with So, the attaché. The groundskeeper let him in to wait near the door, but when he went to find So, Hong pushed open the door to let the rest of his crew in.
Once inside, the balaclavas were removed, and they gathered the embassy’s personnel and placed them in an office with plastic restraints binding their wrists.
“We were concerned about whether there were video cameras inside the embassy,” Ahn explained. “The plan was to perform in front of them right away.”
However, it soon became clear that there was no internal surveillance, and Hong exclaimed in English, “Transition, transition.” The team took this to mean that they could shift their demeanor from mysterious intruders to calm rescuers.
Cheollima members said Hong and another member went into the basement with So to discuss the details of his defection and whether others from the embassy could be persuaded to join his family. BuzzFeed News reviewed a portion of a video clip from the basement in which the would-be defector appears to be laughing and relaxed; Cheollima has not released the entire video.
One member of the group stood guard with So’s wife and son, while others searched the embassy’s many rooms and closets for anyone else. The building was mostly empty, except for the propaganda room, which was crammed with images of Kim Jong Un and regime slogans.
Ahn described the experience as “depressing.” “These were North Korea’s elites, and they had nothing.”
Then came the blunder that would endanger the entire group’s survival. They hadn’t noticed the wife of another senior official, who, according to her court testimony, believed she was in mortal danger after hearing South Korean-accented men rush into the embassy.
She escaped onto a terrace and jumped to the ground below, injuring her head and leg in the process. She managed to limp out a backdoor onto the street, where she flagged down a passing motorist, who took her to a clinic and called the cops. Officers realized she was saying the embassy was under attack after using Google Translate.
Hong and the other members were unaware of any problems and believed the mission was nearly complete. One of the Cheollima members was a North Korean defector who had gained asylum in the United States, and they filmed him walking into the embassy half an hour after Hong and others, crying as he touched North Korean soil. They filmed another member ripping photos of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il from their hands and smashing them on the floor. North Koreans are raised to believe that their leaders are godlike and unbeatable. The plan was to release the footage as anti-regime propaganda later, without revealing where it was shot.
The cops then pressed the buzzer. Hong answered the door, his long hair tied into a bun, wearing a “Dear Leader” pin with Kim Jong Un’s face on it. Hong was born in Mexico to South Korean missionaries, so he knew enough Spanish to convince the officers that there would be no problems.
Other Cheollima members congratulated him after the officers left. But Hong was perplexed: which woman were the cops referring to? When they spoke with the attaché, they realized that an actual resident of the embassy had escaped and called the police.
The phones began to ring incessantly. The large rooms, with tiled floors and few furnishings, amplified the noise to the point where it was difficult to think. Soon after, Hong emerged from the basement with bad news. So was terrified by the news of the escapee, as well as the ringing phones, because he expected North Korean authorities to arrive soon. He canceled his own defection and asked Cheollima to leave immediately.
It was getting dark outside by this point.
Ahn and the group member who was filmed crying as she entered the embassy left on their own in a car. Hong and another member scaled the wall to reach the street behind the embassy, where they boarded an Uber ordered by Hong under the alias Oswaldo Trump. The fake guns, balaclavas, handcuffs, and plastic wrist restraints were left behind by the group.
Members of Cheollima flee the North Korean embassy in Madrid. The Central District of California United States District Court
Ahn and his companion were on their own, with only 2% of their cellphone battery remaining, just enough to coordinate with other members of the group to pick up their passports in a designated area in the bush. From there, each group traveled to Portugal by land in order to fly to the United States.
After midnight, the men found a taxi driver and convinced him in broken Spanish that they needed to get to Porto for his brother’s wedding. They drove all night and were able to book flights home. The rest of the team arrived in New York for a debriefing, but Ahn had meetings for his food supplement startup on Monday, so he flew to Los Angeles.
The plan was to notify the FBI right away. Hong later told members of the group that the agents were wide-eyed as they heard the story but offered no opinions on the implications, instead asking for the names of everyone involved.
Hong refused, but he did hand the agents a cache of intelligence from the North Korean embassy’s foil-lined communications room, including a Huawei mobile phone, USB sticks, two computers, and two hard drives they’d grabbed before fleeing.
For weeks, the group had been cautiously optimistic that their failed mission would have no ramifications. When Hong flew from New York to Los Angeles, where he also lived, Ahn met him at the airport and they talked about the case. Ahn recalled Hong saying, “If only we had known about the wife.”
The FBI demanded more information, and Hong asked if Ahn would speak with them as well, believing that they were checking the details to better protect the group from confusion or retribution. Ahn agreed, figuring he could help clear up any confusion.
Meanwhile, on March 1, 2019, Hong renamed Cheollima Free Joseon, claiming that “tens of millions of our fellow Koreans remain enslaved by a depraved power ruled by a corrupt few made wealthy by the toils of many.” Free Joseon declared itself the provisional government tasked with bringing the Kim regime to an end.
Unbeknownst to the group at the time, Spanish authorities had identified the men involved in the Madrid mission and obtained testimony from North Korean diplomats who told prosecutors that the Cheollima volunteers had beaten and terrorized them. So told prosecutors that the men raided the embassy and tried to force him to defect by telling him that the North Korean government was about to collapse.
That, according to Ahn, is not true, but he believes the men felt compelled to demonstrate their willingness to fight in order to avoid retaliation.
According to Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish entrepreneur with long ties to North Korea, all of the people in the embassy except So were sent back to Pyongyang not long after the incident.
By the end of March, the Spanish court had lifted the case’s secrecy order, revealing another detail: the FBI had been assisting the Spanish investigation and had informed them that Hong had given them embassy material.
Around the same time, the FBI informed Hong and Ahn, without revealing that it was collaborating with Spanish authorities, that the US government had credible intelligence that the North Korean government wanted to assassinate them. According to court documents, the FBI later confirmed the assassination threat with Ahn’s lawyers.
Nonetheless, nothing happened right away. Hong informed Ahn that he was breaking his lease and moving to another house to avoid reporters and potential assassins. A few weeks later, Hong asked Ahn if he wanted a surveillance camera installed outside his house for security — Hong had ordered a few too many. According to Ahn, Hong told him, “Take what you want and leave the rest at my old apartment.”
Ahn entered the apartment and unlocked the door with the key Hong had given him. Several startled US Marshals were standing inside, and he was immediately arrested.
“At first, I wasn’t concerned,” Ahn said. “I kept saying, ‘Can someone please call the FBI or the State Department and clear this up?'” Clearly, there was a blunder.'”
“I expected to be home for dinner,” he explained. Instead, he was arrested and transferred to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he remained for three months.
Despite the US Department of Justice’s opposition, the judge granted him bail, citing the fact that much of the evidence against him came from officials of a country with which the US has no diplomatic relations. Family members put their homes up for sale in order to pay the nearly $1.3 million bail. Another stipulation: no contact with Free Joseon.
He was under strict house arrest for the next year and nine months. He couldn’t even assist his wife in retrieving groceries from the car.
Late last year, the judge modified his bail so that he could travel in a restricted zone from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., allowing him to care for his mother, who has trigeminal neuralgia, a disease that causes extreme pain in the face, and his 99-year-old grandmother at their nearby home.
More than two years after Madrid, Ahn claims his life has been turned upside down with no end in sight. His career is on hold, some friends have abandoned him, and he and his wife have decided to postpone having children until his situation is resolved.
He, on the other hand, has no regrets. “I try not to be bitter,” Ahn explained. “What it boils down to is that if someone asks for help and I am capable of assisting them, I don’t want to be the type of guy who says no.”
The article has been updated to reflect that David Bellavia is the only living Medal of Honor recipient from the Iraq War.