Documents unsealed by a Spanish court on Tuesday shed new light on a strange incident from February in which a mysterious group of armed individuals attacked the North Korean embassy in Madrid. The perpetrators have been revealed as members of a cultish group called Cheollima Civil Defense that appears dedicated to avenging the murder of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.
Cheollima Civil Defense, also known as “Free Joseon,” announced itself with a 2017 communique that cited the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia. The infamous killing was carried out with a nerve agent spread on the victim’s face by two women who claim they were duped by North Korean agents into believing they were playing a harmless prank for a TV show. Charges were abruptly dropped against one of the women in March, while the trial of the other has been put on hold until April.
The Cheollima Civil Defense group, which takes its name from a mythical winged horse that often figures in North Korean propaganda, announced it was protecting Kim Jong-nam’s son Kim Han-sol from death at the hands of North Korean agents. (The other name often used by the group, “The Provisional Government of Free Joseon,” is a reference to the 14th Century Korean dynasty that contributed much of modern Korean culture.)
The group was never particularly secretive, boasting a website and YouTube channel upon which Kim Han-sol has appeared, but it remained enigmatic over the past two years, possibly because it wasn’t taken very seriously. Describing itself as a human rights organization committed to assisting defectors and hastening the end of the brutal Kim dynasty in North Korea, its activities mostly consisted of blogging, urging North Koreans to defy their dictatorship, and spray-painting its logo on whatever North Korean property it could gain access to, including the wall of the embassy in Madrid.
In March, Cheollima Civil Defense declared itself to be the legitimate interim government of North Korea, a “single and just organization” reflecting the will of the people.
Next came the bizarre attack on the North Korean embassy in Madrid, carried out a few days before U.S. President Donald Trump held his second summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam. According to the newly-unsealed Spanish court documents, ten members of Cheollima Civil Defense stormed the facility by pretending to visit on legitimate business and producing weapons once they were inside. The group claims the intruders used fake guns and never had any intention of seriously harming anyone, although court documents indicate they were also armed with very real knives, machetes, and metal clubs.
The intruders took embassy staffers prisoner with shackles, beat some of them, and occupied the facility for about five hours. They took the North Korean attache down to the basement and unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to defect. They filmed themselves smashing portraits of the previous North Korean dictators, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, and uploaded the video to YouTube.
Another hostage escaped from the building and screamed for help, prompting worried neighbors to call the police. When the police arrived, Cheollima Civil Defense leader Adrian Hong Chang met them at the front door wearing a Kim Jong-un badge on his lapel, convinced them he was an embassy official, and talked them into leaving without investigating any further.
The intruders ultimately escaped in several stolen embassy vehicles, taking computers and data discs from the embassy with them. Chang, a Mexican national who lives in the United States, reportedly escaped through Portugal, flew to New Jersey, contacted the FBI, and offered to hand over the materials he seized from the Madrid embassy.
Members of Cheollima Civil Defense made statements implying they have some relationship with the U.S. government, which supposedly teamed up with China and the Netherlands to help them get Kim Han-sol to safety after his father’s murder. Spanish media buzzed with rumors that the embassy attack team had military training and two of its members are linked to the American CIA, possibly tasked with finding information about the former North Korean ambassador to Spain and his ties to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The former ambassador, Kim Hyok-chol, was involved in organizing the Hanoi summit.
The FBI refused to comment on the matter on Tuesday after the Spanish court documents were unsealed, while a State Department spokesman insisted, “The United States government had nothing to do with this.”
A second member of the team that attacked the North Korean embassy was identified as an American citizen named Sam Ruy, while a third was said to be a South Korean named Woo Ran Lee.
Cheollima Civil Defense posted a message on its website Tuesday insisting it does not work for any single government, but it claimed it did share information seized during the Madrid raid with the FBI “under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality.”
“This information was shared voluntarily and on their request, not our own. Those terms appear to have been broken,” the statement said, essentially blaming its putative FBI contacts for leaking information to the media. The group complained that secrecy is essential to its survival and exposing the identity of any member could put others, along with family members in North Korea, at risk.
The group claimed it did not “attack” the Madrid embassy at all, and contrary to the Spanish court documents, it said its team did not carry weapons of any kind. It claimed it was invited into the embassy in response to some “urgent situation.”
“Out of respect for the host nation of Spain, no weapons were used. All occupants in the embassy were treated with dignity and necessary caution,” the statement claimed.
Cheollima Civil Defense concluded its statement by railing against the North Korean regime, accusing it of using its embassies as “hubs of illicit narcotics and arms trafficking” as well as “launchpads for global cyber attacks and thefts, assassinations, kidnapping, and hostage-taking.”
The Spanish court filing indicated police believe all ten of the embassy attackers fled to the United States, from which Spain might seek permission to extradite them. Former U.S. State Department official Lee Wolosky, retained by the group as its legal counsel, dismissed Spanish national court judge Jose de la Mata as “inaccurate and uninformed” about the true nature of Cheollima Civil Defense, which he said is primarily involved in helping defectors flee North Korea.
The court indicated no police reports have been filed by the North Korean government or any of the hostages, which partially accounts for the low media profile of the embassy attack. Another possible reason is embarrassment by the Spanish government over the inadequate police response to the incident and the attackers’ easy escape – or, if the more conspiratorial versions of the story are to be believed, the Spanish government tacitly facilitated the raid and allowed the attackers to get away.
Some theorize the group broke into the North Korean embassy on a mission to grab sensitive material it could sell to foreign governments in order to finance its activities, while others see them as a renegade group of North Korean defectors seeking to disrupt diplomacy between the Kim regime, South Korea, and the United States.
Cheollima Civil Defense presents itself as a tiny rebellion seeking to overthrow an evil empire.
“The struggle we are engaged in with the incumbent regime is not a political race between equals, but a small revolutionary group, fighting and resisting a totalitarian regime that maintains concentration camps, keeps its people enslaved, and regularly kills its opponents and their families,” the group stated on its website.