In early April, the IELR Blog reported on the break-in at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. Though Spain sought the extradition of those involved in the raid, the U.S. refused to comment on the situation, let alone offer their open assistance. As a result, it appeared as though the assailants had escaped, leaving behind a complex political incident that entangled the U.S., North Korea, and Spain, all in the shadow of the failed Trump-Kim summit of February 2019.
One month later, the case continues to develop. On April 23, 2019, the U.S. arrested Christopher Philip Ahn, a U.S. citizen and former Marine, for his involvement in the raid. Spain, who put out the arrest warrant against Ahn, has filed a number of charges against him, including robbery, illegal restraint, and associating with criminal organization. U.S. enforcement officials learned of Ahn’s participation in the raid when Adrian Hong Chang, the de facto leader of the group, informed the FBI of Ahn’s involvement. Video surveillance captured images of Ahn as well. Awaiting extradition, Judge Jean Rosenbluth denied Ahn bond, forcing him to remain in custody.
Just days after Ahn’s arrest, U.S. authorities issued an arrest warrant for Hong Chang himself. A Mexican citizen with permanent residency in the U.S., Hong Chang faces charges similar to those of Ahn, including breaking and entering, as well as causing injuries. The arrest warrant – which references information provided by Spanish authorities – labels Hong Chang as the architect and leader of the seven-person raid.
Hong Chang has been on the move from the moment the raid ended. Calling an Uber to escape the scene of the raid, Hong Chang acted under the alias “Oswaldo Trump.” When the Uber parked too close to the police stationed outside the embassy, he cancelled it and called a new one. He travelled to Toldeo, Spain, then onto Lisbon, Portugal, where he flew to the U.S. The day after the attack, he called and set up a meeting with FBI agents in New York. He informed the agents of his role in the raid, and turned over the items that he captured, which included pen drives and hard drives. He claimed that, though they carried dangerous weapons like knives, they did not display them. Hong Chang also voluntarily met with FBI agents in Los Angeles, where he informed them of Ahn’s role in the raid. Yet with the recent release of the arrest warrant, these attempts to garner the favorable treatment of U.S. law enforcement officials appear to have failed. U.S. authorities believe that Hong Chang lies somewhere in the Central District of California, but his exact location remains unknown.
Hong Chang’s lawyer, Lee Wolosky , has sharply criticized U.S. authorities for accepting North Korea’s version of the story. “In due time,” he stated, “We expect to be able to present additional evidence that contradicts the story made up by the North Korean government.” Wolowsky also represents the Free Joseon, an organization that seeks the overthrow of the Kim regime in North Korea. Though Free Joseon originally claimed responsibility for the raid, they have since reneged on that statement, instead arguing that they were invited into the embassy. Free Joseon has, however, committed sharp acts of protest against the Kim regime in the past. They took credit for saving the surviving family members of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother that Kim Jong Un allegedly assassinated in 2017. They also spray-painted their name and symbol on the North Korean Embassy in Malaysia in March, alongside the phrase, “We shall rise.” They released a video of a man smashing images of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, the previous two leaders of North Korea, as well. Such an act is viewed as heretical in North Korea, since figures of the regime are meant to be viewed with absolute reverence and respect.
Two months on from the February 22 raid, much remains publically unknown. Though U.S. authorities have arrested one man in connection with the raid and are pursuing another, the whereabouts and status of the five other assailants remains a mystery. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how far the U.S. will be willing to go to assist in the prosecution of U.S. individuals who committed crimes in the North Korean embassy. While the U.S. may be upholding their obligations to Spain under international law, executing warrants and preparing individuals for extradition, each step the U.S. takes in this direction indirectly supports the Kim regime. After the FBI returned the items stolen from the embassy to Spain, Spain promptly returned them to North Korea. Additionally, the U.S. has shown little hesitation in moving forward with extradition proceedings against those allegedly involved in the raid, like Ahn.
Since the U.S. and Spain are bound by an extradition treaty, the U.S. is legally bound to follow through on processing the request. Certain exemptions within the treaty could potentially allow the U.S. to avoid extraditing those involved in the raid. According to Article 5, Section 3 of the treaty, extradition shall not be granted when the offense in question is of a “political character.” The raid on the embassy could be viewed as a political act, since it was carried out as a form of protest against the Kim regime. However, the political exemption likely does not apply to this case because the exemption is so narrow. Courts usually recognize the political offense exception when the act committed is done so directly against the state, and possesses none of the elements of an ordinary crime. Rarely are violent acts considered, but if they are, they are minor and almost never involve innocent civilians. Typical crimes exempted include treason, sedition, and espionage, which normally involve peaceful acts like speaking out against the government or demonstrating peacefully. Since Spain is not seeking the extradition of the assailants on these charges, as they are instead focusing on crimes like breaking and entering and causing injuries, it is unlikely that the political exemption will apply in this case.
The raid has undoubtedly placed the U.S. in a difficult situation. In observing the case as it develops, it is worth analyzing how the U.S. balances its legal obligations to Spain with its adversarial attitude toward North Korea. Additionally, five of the seven assailants remain on the run, one of which includes a South Korean national. How legal proceedings develop against these individuals – if any do – will prove worth considering as well. Seeking answers to the many questions that remain, the IELR Blog will continue to monitor the ramifications of the raid in the U.S. and around the world.