Christopher Ahn, a leading suspect in the case who is now in US custody and sought by Spain for extradition, standing outside the North Korean embassy in Madrid on February 22, the day of the attack. (Department of Justice)
By Tim Shorrock | May 6, 2019 A Special Nation Investigation
On Monday night, the Department of Justice issued a wanted poster for the leader of Free Joseon, a shadowy group of Korean exiles suspected of leading a violent assault on the North Korean embassy in Madrid on February 22. A suspect, Adrian Hong Chang, “is considered to be armed and dangerous,” says the poster, which includes a color photo of the fugitive and instructs arresting police officers or anyone who knows his whereabouts to contact the US Marshals Service.
The public notification from the DOJ underscores the seriousness of the US government’s efforts to track down two Koreans sought for possible extradition to Spain under a criminal warrant issued in March by Judge José de la Mata of Spain’s high court. The very unusual move has stirred a backlash from US foreign-policy hard-liners on North Korea who say the Trump administration’s manhunt for the suspects amounts to support for that country’s 34-year-old dictator.
That response is being led by Lee Wolosky, a New York lawyer and partner at Boies Schiller Flexner with extensive national-security experience. He entered the picture as the attorney and spokesperson for Free Joseon on March 26, the same day de la Mata identified Hong (Chang’s original surname), and has added a layer of mystery—and obfuscation—to an already strange story.
In his public statements, Wolosky has defended Free Joseon’s actions in Madrid, denied the judge’s accusations, and chastised the US government for publicly disclosing the names of the suspects. Wolosky did not respond to requests from The Nation for an interview. On Tuesday, a Boies Schiller Flexner spokesperson called to ask “what this story is all about” but did not respond to questions about who was paying for Wolosky’s representation and how he got involved in the case.
Hong is a Korean citizen of Mexico long known in Washington for his strident opposition to the government of Kim Jong-un. Hong and Christopher Ahn, a former US Marine who once served in Iraq, stand accused of breaking into and entering the North Korean embassy in Madrid, taking North Korean diplomats hostage, and stealing computers, hard drives, cellphones, and encryption devices that they later handed over to the FBI. Ahn was arrested in Los Angeles by US Marshals on April 18.
In the first court action in the case, on April 23, Ahn appeared in federal court in Los Angeles. He remains in jail and was denied bond under an extradition warrant from Spain, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Justice Department, with another hearing scheduled for July. In a series of events that has yet to be explained, Hong met with the FBI in New York and Los Angeles in late March to discuss the embassy attack, according to the DOJ court filings. Yet he somehow managed to evade the government’s raid in April on his apartment in LA and is now in hiding, his attorney claims.
Hong, who is a permanent US resident, came to fame in 2004 after founding Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a California-based organization which claims to operate an “underground railroad” that helps North Korean defectors and refugees settle in South Korea and the United States and uses the media and the Internet to promote their stories. He left LiNK in 2008 but remained active in his staunch opposition to the Kim government in Pyongyang. In 2015, Hong reemerged in public to organize the Joseon Institute—a precursor to his new organization—and announced that he would be preparing for “increasingly imminent, dramatic change” in North Korea.
A recent posting on the Free Joseon website hints at that change. In it, an embedded YouTube video titled “In Our Homeland” claims to show someone in North Korea shattering framed pictures of Kim Jong-un and his father. “Down with Kim family rule!” the video reads. “For our people we rise up! Long live Free Joseon!” No North Koreans, however, were involved in the Madrid attack, according to Spanish police. Nevertheless, the perpetrators showed a remarkable sense of timing.
The incident occurred a few days before the failed summit between President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi, where one of Kim’s top negotiators was Kim Hyok Chol, a former ambassador to Spain. The DOJ’s quick response to the warrant and its respectful treatment of North Korea in its “Memorandum of Points and Authorities” filed on April 19 is clearly linked to the Trump administration’s desire to keep the denuclearization talks with Kim going after months of stalemate. But it also could be a way for the US government to distance itself from the raid.
Spanish intelligence initially blamed two individuals connected to the CIA for the attack, according to the Madrid daily El País. The State Department responded that the US government “had nothing to do with” it. And within days of that report, The Washington Post jumped in with a story tamping down the CIA talk. Quoting “people familiar with the planning and execution of the mission,” the Post countered that the raid was actually the work of Cheollima Civil Defense, a mysterious “dissident” organization that first came to public attention in 2017. On March 26, Cheollima confirmed the story on its website.
Under its new name of Free Joseon (Joseon is the ancient name for Korea adopted in 1919 by opponents of Japanese colonial rule), Cheollima justified the raid as a stand against an illegal regime: “The charade of pretending that the [Kim] regime is a normal government must stop—the regime is simply a giant criminal enterprise.” Cheollima claimed it had been “invited into the embassy” and insisted that “no one was gagged or beaten.” At the same time, it complained that the names of Hong and others were leaked by the US government in a “profound betrayal of trust.” That left the impression that one of two things had happened: The attack was never approved by Cheollima’s US-government allies, or it was sanctioned but went drastically wrong.
Strangely, before the DOJ notification, few in Washington’s community of North Korea antagonists seemed to be aware of Free Joseon or its recent activities. “Honestly, I don’t know anything about them,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), who last saw Hong in 2015 and considered him a “dedicated human-rights activist.” Scarlatoiu, whose organization was founded in 2001 to expose the cruelties of the North’s police state and prison system, was excited by the emergence of another opposition group. “This is the first time we see organized, apparently militant resistance outside of North Korea,” he told The Nation. But he was quick to add that, as of now, there is “no clear, irrefutable evidence of resistance inside North Korea.”
Jenny Town, a senior analyst and editor with the 38 North website and research group who last saw Hong around 2006, said Free Joseon’s claims that its actions were peaceful don’t seem credible in light of video and other evidence gathered by Spanish police. “I would trust the video rather than the political statements,” she said in an interview. Moreover, Hong’s “politics were never secret. He’s always been pro–regime change and trying to rescue North Korean defectors.” Several Korean Americans who knew Hong said his obsession with fomenting a revolt led by defectors has been well known in DC and the large Korean communities in Los Angeles and New York for years. “He was very, very demagogic,” said Christine Hong (no relation), a professor and historian at UC Santa Cruz who met Hong in the early 2000s at a conference on North Korea.
A Rashomon Story
The conflicting tales and explanations about Hong and his group have a Rashomon, dueling-perspective feel to them that makes it difficult to come to definitive conclusions about the Madrid attack. “I think everybody’s telling the truth, at least in part,” John Kiriakou told The Nation. A CIA counterintelligence officer from 1990 to 2004, he was a whistle-blower prosecuted for divulging details to the media about the CIA’s torture program and, after a plea agreement, jailed in 2013 on the absurd charge of confirming the name of a known CIA officer.
Kiriakou’s first take, he said, was that “the CIA would never, ever sanction an operation like what we saw in Madrid. It was so amateurish and so criminal in its nature that no one at headquarters would ever approve.” If the agency launched an embassy break-in, “it would be done in the middle of the night, with one insider and several specialists sent from Washington—not a bunch of exiles. Never, absolutely never.” But that said, he asked, “Do I think the CIA has had contact with these people? Absolutely. That’s what they do. The CIA has contact with opposition people, real and fake, all over the world.”
The confusion about Free Joseon’s US-government ties is apparently what Wolosky is trying to clear up. In his press statements, he has tried to portray his clients as heroic dissidents “who are working in opposition to a brutal regime that routinely and summarily executes its enemies.” He turned up the heat when the DOJ arrested Ahn. “We are dismayed that the US Department of Justice has decided to execute warrants against US persons that derive from criminal complaints filed by the North Korean regime,” Wolosky declared on April 19 in a statement posted on the Free Joseon website.
A few days later, he went on CNN and made the audacious claim to reporter Brian Todd that Hong is in hiding because “North Korean hit squads have been dispatched” to kill him. (Wolosky chose his media outlet carefully: Todd is responsible for some of CNN’s most sensationalized reporting on North Korea over the past two years.) After the arrest, Wolosky sought to link the dissidents to Otto Warmbier, the Virginia student who was imprisoned in North Korea for a year and a half before being returned to the United States in a coma and dying in 2017.
“The last US citizen who fell into the custody of the Kim regime returned home maimed from torture and did not survive,” Wolosky said. “We have received no assurances from the US government about the safety and security of the US nationals it is now targeting.” On April 22, he tweeted, “Never thought I’d see the day when DOJ is executing warrants against U.S. nationals being targeted by North Korea, based on criminal complaints from the Kim regime.” Last Friday, he charged that the DOJ and Spain based their accounts on “the highly unreliable accounts of North Korean government witnesses.”
Those claims are preposterous and are based on fallacies about the investigation, said a European analyst who is in contact with Spanish officials involved in the investigation. North Korea, which called the embassy intrusion a “grave terrorist attack” and an “act of extortion” in its state-run media, did not file charges against the attackers or request their extradition. In fact, “they haven’t cooperated at all,” the analyst said. The Spanish just “wouldn’t issue direct warrants without proof,” he said. “The people in the embassy were beaten pretty badly and were hospitalized. The Spanish authorities view this as a serious case.”
So who are these guys, and what are they really up to? Are they working for the CIA? Why has a lawyer who has represented clients in important national-security cases suddenly emerged as their spokesperson? The Nation has gathered enough strands of information to provide some preliminary answers.
First, there is strong evidence that Hong has connections to US intelligence agencies. According to the European analyst with ties to Spanish law enforcement, Spanish police and intelligence officials have “solid proof” that Hong met with known CIA officials in Spain—including photographs and communication records. In April, the right-wing Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, which is known for its contacts with South Korean intelligence, reported that Hong signed a US-government contract about eight years ago and that his “consulting work often involved the CIA.”
And in 2018, according to a prominent North Korean defector interviewed by The Washington Post, Hong was in Washington for a meeting at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. When I asked the ODNI if it could confirm or deny that report, a US official said the ODNI “declines to comment.” But she warned that reporters should “really check” and “be careful” of their sources on this story, adding, “I’ve said enough.”
Second, several North Korea analysts believe that the CIA was involved in past actions by Free Joseon. In 2017, Cheollima Civil Defense was involved in a covert action that whisked Kim Han-sol, a nephew of Kim Jong-un, from Macau to a safe house in an unknown country after his father, Kim Jong-nam, the North Korean leader’s half-brother, was murdered in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. At the time, Cheollima thanked the US government, as well as the governments of China, the Netherlands, and another nation it did not identify for their assistance and later posted a video of the younger Kim speaking about his family. (His poise and solid command of English can also be seen in a remarkable interview he did a few years earlier with a Finnish journalist at his school in Bosnia.)
Last week, Wolosky told CNN that Ahn was involved in the extraction of Kim Han-sol and called him “an American hero.” Ahn would have been prepared for a covert mission: As a Marine in Iraq, he was the deputy chief of intelligence for a battalion that ran US detention facilities after the scandal at Abu Ghraib, according to a 2008 article in The Washington Times. After his time in Iraq, he worked in Washington as the director of operations for Vets for Freedom, a group that stood out for its adamant support for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and advocated for victory in Iraq, according to a profile on NPR. (See him lament the “loss” of patriotism at the University of Virginia in this video from the 10th anniversary of 9/11.)
Third, Wolosky’s background in national security could explain why he represents Free Joseon. During his years as director for transnational threats at the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he was responsible for several important investigations, including that of the US blacklisting of a bank in Macau that was linked to North Korea. From 2015 to 2017, Wolosky was President Barack Obama’s special envoy on closing the US detention facility in Guantánamo, Cuba, and has extensive connections to many top Democrats involved in counterterrorism.
Most significantly, Wolosky is the attorney for United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a neocon organization that focuses much of its energy on Iran’s links with North Korea. It is chaired by former senator Joseph Lieberman and was co-founded by (and retains close ties to) John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national-security adviser. Wolosky’s representation of UANI was confirmed on Tuesday by Edward Evans, a spokesperson for Boies Schiller Flexner. “UANI is a long-standing client, but there are no active litigation matters,” he said.
That organization, according to journalist Eli Clifton, receives much of its funding from “GOP megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.” It claims Iran’s weapons and missile programs are illicitly backed by North Korea and wants the US government to increase sanctions against both countries. UANI would have good reason to support regime change in North Korea, which the group sees as part of a triumvirate of countries threatening US interests. “I am hopeful that Trump will use his recent momentum from Venezuela to demonstrate strength and resolve to North Korea and Iran’s regimes,” Mark Kirk, a former Illinois senator and a senior UANI adviser, wrote in a February 2019 op-ed timed for Trump’s ill-fated summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi.
Adrian Hong and the Axis of Evil
Adrian Hong is from an evangelical family and discovered North Korea issues while a student at Yale. He founded LiNK shortly after George W. Bush famously declared in 2002 that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran. With the US government now clearly on the side of regime change, activist groups and evangelical Christians who opposed North Korea on anti-communist grounds were given a renewed lease on life. “The axis of evil allowed all these cold warriors to renovate along human-rights lines,” said UC Santa Cruz’s Christine Hong, who has written extensively about the role of defectors in US foreign policy.
By all accounts, Adrian Hong was driven by a messianic regime-change ideology that was on vivid display in his last public appearance, before the Canadian Parliament in 2016. In 2006, he was instrumental in a State Department operation that smuggled six defectors into the United States in the first US-sponsored effort to give asylum to North Koreans. His fame grew when he was briefly arrested and detained in China for helping refugees. He spoke often, as at this conference at the Hudson Institute in 2012 that was broadcast on C-SPAN.
In the ensuing years, LiNK and other groups established a formidable network that included Scarlatoiu’s HRNK, the Defense Forum Foundation, and the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy, which has poured millions of dollars into programs for North Korean defectors and sponsors visits of high-level defectors to Washington. In contrast to the American Friends Service Committee and other humanitarian organizations that work in North Korea, these more hard-line groups argue against engagement with Pyongyang, even by the South Korean government, and often talk openly about the need for regime change.
Under Hong, LiNK adopted a peculiar America-first approach to North Korea that largely excluded the South as a player in reunification discussions. During his time there in 2006, Hong led several delegations of college kids, most of them Korean American, to South Korea to voice “frustration about how little South Koreans seem to care about human rights.” Their activities, according to an account in the South China Morning Post, “included ambushing local politicians, distributing fliers and staging public demonstrations.” South Koreans basically told him to bug off, a response that stung Hong. “The worst reaction has been student protesters saying ‘go back to your country, mind your own business, this is our issue, we will take care of it,’” he complained to the newspaper.
Hong also promoted an economic vision for a liberated North Korea that sounds much like Trump’s predictions of US-led development for the North today. “In serial calls for regime change in North Korea, [Hong] has glibly pitched the vast growth potential of a post-collapse North Korea brightened by capitalism and annexed to U.S. financial interests,” Christine Hong wrote in a recent essay.
In 2008, Hong quit LiNK and his high-profile job and left Washington. “He went dark on most of his contacts,” said Town of 38 North. A few years later, he founded a financial consulting firm, Pegasus Strategies, and began focusing more of his energies on overt support for regime change. One of his motivations was the example of Libya, where in 2011 the government of Moammar El-Gadhafi was overthrown by a US- and NATO-led intervention assisted by the CIA. “I consider the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea,” Hong told The National, a daily published in the United Arab Emirates, shortly after Gadhafi was captured and murdered. North Korea “has seen what happened” to deposed rulers in Tunisia and Egypt “and especially Gaddafi this year.”
Shortly after Gadhafi’s fall, Hong went to Libya to test his model. By this time, he was established as a TED fellow, with the credentials to organize autonomous gatherings for the Silicon Valley PR organization under the rubric TEDx. As a conference in Tripoli was getting underway in 2012, Africa Intelligence, a specialty newsletter, said the event “allowed international investors and business people to mingle with Libya’s new rulers,” including Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur (who became an adviser to the Joseon Institute, the London Sunday Telegraph reported last week).
The idea behind meetings like this, Hong later wrote in an op-ed for The Christian Science Monitor, was to help create “a class of Korean technocrats [who] must be capable of stabilizing and rebuilding on a national scale.” It was around this time that he signed his contract that “involved” the CIA, according to Chosun Ilbo. A few years later, Hong began to work with Ahn, and Cheollima Civil Defense took shape. Little is known of Ahn since his days with Vets for Freedom, but Hong was likely attracted to his commitment to the exercise of US power. “Who is the leader of the world pushing for goodness and harmony and democracy and trying to facilitate that?”Ahn asked in his 2008 interview with The Washington Times. “It’s the Americans, and not the government, but the people through their sacrifices.”
Hong had a similar vision. In his trips to Asia, he frequently sought to persuade high-level North Korean defectors to join his cause—including Kim’s half-brother while he was exiled in Macau. “He asked Kim Jong Nam multiple times to serve as the insurgent leader, only to be met with rejection,” a former South Korean intelligence official told The Washington Post. Just before the attack in Madrid, Hong went to Tokyo in an attempt to raise funds and meet Japanese officials “who could help provide protection for Kim Han Sol,” according to an account in NK News. But a Japanese intelligence official told the reporter that he didn’t understand Hong’s request because Kim’s nephew “now resides in either the U.S. or Israel under full government protection.”
Now Hong and Ahn stand charged with violent crimes that the DOJ said could put them in prison for over 10 years. DOJ documents claim that Hong, after first visiting the embassy posing as a financial consultant, returned on February 22 and asked to see the chargé d’affaires, identified as Y.S.S. When an official went to look for him, Hong opened the door and let Ahn and six others “carrying knives, iron bars, machetes and imitation handguns” into the grounds. Once in control, they proceeded to restrain members of the embassy staff “using shackles and cables.”
In a technique often used by terrorists and US Special Forces, Hong and his crew placed bags over their captives’ heads. Among them was Y.S.S. Hong and Ahn, according to the DOJ complaint, “took Y.S.S. to a bathroom where they tied his hands behind his back, placed a bag over his head, and threatened him with iron bars and imitation handguns.” This was apparently an attempt to persuade the commercial attaché, who had been an aide to Ambassador Kim Hyok Chol, to defect.
Once done with their mission, the suspects then flew to the US East Coast, where Hong contacted the FBI and apparently turned in his colleague, according to DOJ documents related to the case. (In a meeting with the FBI in Los Angeles, the DOJ said, Hong “stated that Ahn was one of the members of the group who participated in the attack” and “lived in Chino, California.”) Hong did not respond to queries sent to his verified Twitter account or an e-mail address provided by a former classmate.
So who’s paying Wolosky, the lawyer? “That’s a great question,” said former CIA operative Kiriakou. If Wolosky has a security clearance, “it’s conceivable that he could be paid by the government, including the ODNI, the CIA, or even the NSC.” In fact, the chances that he has retained his clearance since leaving government are high: A defamation lawsuit against UANI that Wolosky handled was dismissed by a federal judge in 2015 after the government argued that it could reveal state secrets. Evans, the spokesperson for Boies Schiller Flexner, ignored questions about Wolosky’s security clearances. On Tuesday, however, Wolosky released a statement to The Nation taking issue with the DOJ’s claims. “As we have maintained from the beginning, Free Joseon was invited to enter the Embassy, and there was no ‘attack’ or forced entry,” he said. “This is now made clear by the CCTV images released by the DOJ itself. In due time, we expect to be able to present additional evidence that contradicts the account of the North Korean government, which correctly recognizes the threat posed to it by those championing the cause of freedom.”
It now looks as if Wolosky’s audacious defense of Free Joseon could mark the beginning of a campaign by regime-change advocates to support Hong and Ahn as freedom fighters who deserve US support. The opening salvo was fired on April 25 by Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who is frequently called to testify before Congress because of his hard-line views and ardent support for military and economic pressure on North Korea. “For the U.S. to accept what is essentially a North Korean version of the events is to effectively defend the Kim regime,” he wrote in The Los Angeles Times.
Fox News picked up the story, with interviews with Wolosky and Lee, and that segment has been tweeted by such neocon stalwarts as Iraq War promoter Max Boot. Last Friday, the campaign against North Korea was boosted by a well-timed story in The Washington Post that said the Kim government issued a $2 million bill for Warmbier’s hospice care before he was released. Trump denied it, saying “We don’t pay money for hostages.” But by Monday, despite former US envoy Joseph Yun’s explanation that the US government was obligated to make the payment, hundreds of people from left and right tweeted the Warmbier story and used it to hammer Trump and Kim.
What’s next? In a mysterious posting on its website on Saturday after the Post story broke, Free Joseon wrote just one word: “Orange.” An intelligence source quoted by one Korean newspaper said the color may indicate “a deciphering algorithm.” But could it be a sign that Free Joseon’s next target for its campaign against extradition is Trump, well known for his orange countenance? For Adrian Hong, who used the alias Oswaldo Trump while hailing an Uber during his getaway in Madrid, that’s entirely possible. As Town concluded, the tale of the attack and Hong’s role in it “is all very murky to everyone.”
Tim Shorrock is a Washington, DC–based journalist and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World, and a Korea Policy Institute Associate.