On February 22, 2019, 10 masked individuals broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid. They tied up the eight people present at the embassy, placed bags over their heads, and, in some cases, beat and interrogated them. The group paid particular attention to Yun Sok So, an official in the embassy’s economics department. They not only beat him, but continuously pressured him to abandon North Korea. The assailants also stole a number of items, including pen drives, computers, and hard drives. One embassy employee managed to escape during the lockdown, screaming from outside to attract the attention of others, and eventually, the police. Yet when the police knocked on the embassy’s front door, they met what looked like a North Korean diplomat, who informed them that nothing was wrong. The police left, allowing the group to continue their raid. Approximately five hours after their arrival, the assailants fled the scene, stealing vehicles from the embassy only to abandon them on a nearby street. Some reports noted that the assailants were freedom fighters seeking to liberate North Korea, while others claimed that the aggressors had ties to the CIA.
Yet as the weeks passed, the case only proved more complex. Evidence revealed that Kim Hyok Chol, one of Kim Jong-Un’s most revered diplomats, formerly served as the North Korean Ambassador to Spain, until he was expelled in 2017 because of the Kim regime’s continued nuclear testing. Kim Hyok Chol was seen as one of the prime architects of the Trump-Kim meeting in Vietnam, which occurred only days after the raid. Reports also indicated that individuals with ties to the U.S. and South Korea took part in the raid. Adrian Hong Chang, a Mexican citizen who currently resides in the U.S., led the raid. Hong Chang allegedly posed as a “managing partner” of a fictitious firm interested in investing in North Korea. He asked to meet with Yun Sok So, presenting a false business card. Moments later, the assailants stormed the embassy. When police checked in on the embassy during the raid, it was likely Hong Chang that convinced them that all was well and calmly turned them away. After the raid, Hong Chang traveled to Lisbon, where he flew back to the U.S. Five days later, he reached out to the FBI, offering to share the “audiovisual material” he acquired during the raid.
Spanish authorities also identified two other individuals that took part in the raid – U.S. citizen Sam Ruy and South Korean citizen Woo Ram Lee. Jose de la Mata, a judge on Spain’s national court, pioneered the investigation into the raid, and has since issued international arrest warrants for Hong Chang and Ruy. However, their exact locations are unknown, or have at least not been disclosed. The FBI, meanwhile, has refused to comment on the situation.
North Korea did not officially comment on the incident until March 31 – over a month after it occurred. They called the raid “a grave terrorist attack” that served as a “flagrant violation of international law.” According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the raid was undeniably a violation of international law. Article 22, Section One of the Convention states that “the premises of the mission shall be inviolable,” while Section Three notes that, “the premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.” Judge de la Mata also mentioned that the raid could result in a variety of charges against the assailants, such as theft using violence, membership in a criminal organization, and illegal detention.
However, this is unlikely to deter the group that has since claimed responsibility for the raid. At the end of March – again, about a month after the raid – Free Joseon (Free North Korea) admitted to leading the raid. A defector group dedicated to overthrowing the North Korean government, Free Joseon has continually served as thorn in the side of the Kim regime. In 2017, they claimed to have taken Kim Han Sol under their protection. Kim Han Sol was the son of Kim Jong Nam, who was the brother to Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Nam was mysteriously assassinated in 2017 – some think by his brother. Believing him under threat, Free Joseon (then known as Cheollima Civil Defense) stated that they secured Kim Han Sol’s protection. Kim Han Sol has not been seen in public since 2017, when he appeared in a video published by Cheollima Civil Defense.
The mystery and multiple layers behind this case make it sound like a spy thriller. Since North Korea rarely acknowledges events like these – events that may be viewed as failures by the regime – their willingness to do so here stresses not only how far word is spreading of the raid, but how frustrated the regime is by the raid itself. Additionally, U.S. ties to the raid are too coincidental to ignore. With Spanish reporters arguing that two of the raiders possessed ties to the CIA, and Judge de la Mata noting that one was a U.S. resident and another a U.S. citizen, suspicions that the U.S. was to some degree involved in the raid are becoming too pressing to ignore. The raid’s near-timing to the Trump-Kim talks in Vietnam – which the former North Korean Ambassador to Spain played a key role in orchestrating – only adds to the suspicions. Even though Free Joseon claimed responsibility for the raid, their involvement alongside U.S.-affiliated individuals begs the question – to what degree is the U.S. affiliated with the defector group? Finally, Spain’s decision to issue international arrest warrants for at least two individuals allegedly involved in the raid, as well as consider pressing further charges, emphasizes that Spain will not simply let this go, even though Spanish-North Korean relations are far from perfect.
Like a spy thriller, it is difficult to predict what answers, if any, we will get to this mystery.