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North Korea Spanish Embassy Raid Mystery Deepens

A view of North Korea's embassy in Madrid, Feb. 28, 2019.
A view of North Korea's embassy in Madrid, Feb. 28, 2019.

Spain is seeking the extradition of as many as 10 people from the United States who burst into the North Korean embassy in Madrid last month and tried to pass stolen information to the FBI.

A Spanish judge said he believes all 10 fled to the United States after the February 22 raid. He called them members of a criminal organization and accuses them of trespassing, burglary, assault, and threats. If extradited and convicted, those found guilty could face nearly 30 years in prison.

The suspects call themselves Cheollima Civil Defense and describe the group as a human rights movement working to liberate North Korea. On its website, the organization classified its Madrid action as a response to an “urgent situation.”

“We were invited into the embassy, and contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten. 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 group said without providing evidence.

The group’s origin remains largely a mystery, but first came to prominence following the death of Kim Jong Un’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam. Cheollima posted a video of a young man claiming to be Kim Jong Nam’s son, Kim Han Sol.

Whatever information was collected, the group allegedly then turned it over to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

“This information was shared voluntarily and on their request, not our own,” the Cheollima statement read.

An FBI statement neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an investigation in the matter, but noted it had a good working relationship with Spanish law enforcement.

On Tuesday, the State Department’s deputy spokesperson said Washington was not involved with the incident and "would always call for the protection of embassies belonging to any diplomatic mission throughout the world."

As stories of the raid began appearing in media outlets across the globe, speculation arose over who may have coordinated the raid and if a foreign government played any role.

According to Cheollima, “There were no other governments involved with or aware of our activity until after the event.”

Seoul’s unification ministry said it had no information on the incident and could not confirm or provide any details about the February 22 event.

A goal for a free North Korea

On March 1, the 100th anniversary of the Korean independence movement, Cheollima Civil Defense released a statement on its website, declaring itself “Free Joseon.”

“WE DECLARE ON THIS DAY the establishment of Free Joseon, a provisional government preparing the foundations for a future nation built upon respect for principles of human rights and humanitarianism, holding sacred a manifest dignity for every woman, man, and child,” the website read.

The statement went on to add, “We declare this entity the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people of the north.”

“We rise against the criminal incumbents of the north, who have perpetuated vast crimes against humanity for decades. We dedicate ourselves completely to the abolition of this great evil, a stain on the very soul of humanity,” the organizations’ website said.

In its declaration, Cheollima called on like-minded individuals to “join our revolution” and those in North Korea to “defy your oppressors.”

It also offered a warning to those engaging with Pyongyang, “To those who would continue to legitimize and empower this regime: History will remember where you stood when you were offered this choice.”

Shrouded in mystery

After Cheollima posted the video of Kim Han Sol, there’s been significant interest in determining who the group’s members are. Domestic and international journalists have repeatedly made inquiries, but they have gone unanswered.

The group explains, “Even beyond its borders, it (North Korea) will use assassinations, terrorism, and even weapons of mass destruction, to destroy any who might oppose or challenge their monopoly on power. We respectfully and sincerely ask that you do not enable or make it easier for the regime’s death squads, who have already committed and continue to commit countless crimes against humanity, to threaten or harm our members and their families,” the group said in a statement on its website.

The statement added, “The identification of even a single member could lead to the identities of others. Several of us have already escaped their attempts on our lives and that of our families. Many of our compatriots and their relatives have not been as fortunate. And any left surviving in concentration camps would surely face execution if the identities of their family members as dissidents were made known.”

While the group is distancing itself from the media at this juncture, it also says it wants to have a “positive partnership with the media” and will do so when it feels safe.

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller is a veteran broadcast journalist with over a decade of experience. He is currently the Executive Producer of VOA's audio programs including its long-form podcasts and hourly 5-minute newscasts. Before joining VOA in 2016, Steve covered the Indo-Pacific region while living in South Korea, where he explored the region's rich history and culture while reporting on geopolitics, human rights, and tourism.