De Facto Collapse of Case Against Free Joseon?


After the first suspects in the case involving an attack on the North Korean Embassy in Madrid were identified, the author hoped that this would set the wheels in motion. However, since spring 2019 there have not been any news reports about it, and the ones published have been disappointing.

The only person, arrested in connection with the case in April 2019, was Christopher Ahn, a 38-year-old American of Korean descent and a former marine. He was released on $1.3 million bail, and was meant to wear an ankle bracelet and remain at an “undisclosed location”, which he was allowed to leave only to go to a medical clinic or to church.

We would like to remind our readers that Christopher Ahn and the others accused of the attack on the DPRK Embassy, had taken diplomatic personnel hostage, and had beaten up and handcuffed embassy staff before taking a civil servant of the highest rank to the basement and urging him to defect from North Korea. The robbers escaped from the building in embassy vehicles, having taken two thumb drives, two computers and two hard drives with them. They later shared the contents of these devices with the FBI under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality.

Some of the staff were tortured. Hence, in accordance with Spanish laws, the attackers face a 10-year sentence for the crime of robbery by violence, intimidation or threat, for torture and for being a member of a criminal organization. Their involvement was proven by evidence collected by the police at the scene of the crime, medical reports, footage from surveillance cameras and statements given by the staff of the DPRK Embassy.

According to Linkedin, Christopher Ahn, currently employed by Digital Strategy & Marketing Consulting, served in the US marines for 6 years. His responsibilities included monitoring prisoners in American jails in Fallujah and taking part in other intelligence missions.

Officially, Christopher Ahn was meant to remain under house arrest until further progress in the investigation was made and his potential extradition to Spain. However, Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth said that Ahn’s family and friends risked losing the money paid as bail if the suspect escaped. And while making her decision public, she said the following phrase, which could appear to have a duel meaning to any conspiracy theorist: “I have spent a lot of time reading about you and I trust that you will do the right thing.” Jean Rosenbluth also added that she had seen evidence from US authorities suggesting that the DPRK government posed a risk to Christopher Ahn’s life. And although it is unusual to release someone who faces extradition on bail, her order to do so stated: “The Court could find no other case in which most of the evidence came from representatives of a government with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations.”

The leader of Free Joseon, Adrian Hong, is still on the run as he “fears for his safety.” The U.S. Marshals Service believes that he could be armed and dangerous. When law enforcement agents came to arrest him, he was not in his apartment. And his lawyer stated that he did not know where his client was at the time. In fact, CNN has publicized a video which shows six police officers entering the flat and shouting “Police!” before conducting the search. Was this a covert warning by chance?

In addition, U.S. citizen Samuel Ryu and South Korean Wooram Lee, whose whereabouts are unknown, are also involved in the case.

However, another individual is of even greater interest. According to the Spanish newspaper ABC, Judge José de la Mata, of Spain’s High Court, issued the fifth international arrest warrant against Charles Ryu (or Cheol Ryu), a high-profile North Korean defector who was only recently identified as linked with the raid on the embassy.

24-year-old Charles Ryu is a U.S. citizen and well-known activist, who, according to NK News, earlier worked for the nonprofit organization Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). Cheol Ryu became a more public figure in 2018, when he began to tell media outlets about his escape from the DPRK as a child and his new life in the United States. An active social media user, Cheol Ryu visited South Korea in January 2019, and in March of the same year, he began a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for a documentary about his experiences. He has said that he escaped from North Korea twice, when he was 14 and 16 years of age, and that his mother had died of starvation when he was 11. For nine months of his life (probably after his first failed attempt to escape), Cheol Ryu was held in a North Korean detention center, where he was “ordered to carry out forced labor and later worked in a coal mine.”

After his escape, he settled in the United States and later on became a U.S. citizen. NK News reported that LiNK CEO Hannah Song made the following statement about Cheol Ryu (who finished his internship with the organization in November 2018): “While working with us, he was a genuinely passionate advocate for the North Korean people. It appears that he was contacted by Adrian Hong and, unbeknownst to our organization, recruited to be involved in Free Joseon’s activities after leaving LiNK.”

United States Department of Justice official “declined to comment when asked for more details about Ryu’s case, or whether the U.S. would comply with Spain’s requests for his extradition.” However, there are rumors that Cheol Ryu was identified as a suspect when he was caught on camera entering the embassy, and that a number of appeals made by Free Joseon were written by him.

In the meantime, Free Joseon, which portrays itself as “government-in-exile” for North Korea, continues to publicize various appeals from time to time. They are then re-stated by lawyer Lee Wolosky: “It is completely unprecedented, and extremely sad and unfortunate, that the Department of Justice is — for the first time ever — executing arrest warrants against U.S. citizens based on criminal complaints of North Korea, and based on the accounts of North Korean witnesses who we know not to be credible.” He has also said that it was dangerous to release any information about the organization because then Pyongyang death squads would use this against it.  There are also appeals to Washington to decline the extradition request from the Spanish government as there is a possibility that Madrid would hand over the suspects to the DPRK, where they would be executed.

Lee Wolosky openly refers to his clients as heroes, who deserve “much better treatment” and Free Joseon as the “magnet for defectors, who contact them in a variety of ways in all places around the globe”. “Let these men go back to serving their country, the United States, and to work toward a free and democratic North Korea as they have been doing. Let them go back to their families and let them go back to their service,” the lawyer has said.

Christopher Ahn’s other lawyer Naeun Rim said in an interview: “This case continues to unnecessarily endanger the life of an American veteran based on the statements of North Korean officials who lack all credibility.” Moreover, he believes that if his client was to go to Spain, he would be within reach of North Korean authorities.  In an interview with CNN Naeun Rim said: “There are people on the ground who are connected to the North Korean government, they can reach out to people in Spain if they want to commit a crime or harm somebody.” And since DPRK agents are most likely “in touch with people in the underworld, in Spain,” they “would have no trouble finding their way into a Spanish jail if Mr. Ahn were to be detained there”.

Hence, although the investigation revealed some interesting information, the case has essentially collapsed. After all, the suspects in this case are being sought by authorities but not very actively or they were released on bail and, in fact, disappeared.  U.S. Department of Justice and Department of State have refused to comment on the case.

The reason for this behavior is clear, neither the anti-North Korean lobby nor the law enforcement agencies view these people as criminals.  And this means that these anti-DPRK terrorists could still stage a provocation of equal magnitude to the raid on the embassy or the murder of Kim Jong-nam that, in the author’s opinion, they are responsible for.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

New Eastern Outlook

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