New – and unlikely – allegations of CIA links to North Korean Embassy attack in Madrid

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter
A Spanish National Police car sits outside the North Korean Embassy in Madrid on Feb. 28. (Photo: Sergio Perez/Reuters)

When a bleeding woman ran down the street in a leafy suburb of Madrid, pointing at the nearby North Korean embassy and screaming about masked invaders, local police at first thought she was crazy. Now they suspect the mysteries of that day are linked to the CIA, report Spanish media outlets El Confidencial and El Pais.

A hush-hush and ongoing Spanish investigation into a violent break-in claims that on Feb. 22, 10 armed men in masks reportedly scaled the side of Pyongyang’s isolated Embassy in the Spanish capital and assaulted and interrogated staff before absconding with papers and computer devices. The break-in occurred just five days before President Trump met North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

North Korea’s embassy is currently without a formal head since its former ambassador, Kim Hyok Chol, was declared persona non grata and flown out of Spain 18 months earlier as part of international condemnation of his country’s nuclear testing.

The enigmatic embassy break-in took a dramatic new twist this week when it was leaked to Spanish digital newspaper El Confidencial that upon studying the embassy’s security cameras, investigators had identified two of the subjects as being linked to the CIA. What’s more, according to subsequent reporting, the assailants were carrying “imitation weapons,” while further police investigation revealed that the embassy itself held “an arsenal” of arms, described as a vast quantity of rifles, shotguns and handguns, in a country where ownership of arms is heavily restricted. Additionally, investigators believe a transformer fire outside the embassy may be linked to the break-in, according to El Confidencial.

The strange saga is confounding experts on intelligence and diplomacy across the U.S., Europe and North Korea about what the motivation behind the intrusion may have been — many casting doubt that the U.S. spy agency would get mixed up in such a potentially thorny diplomatic snarl in Spain.

The CIA declined to comment.

But multiple former U.S. intelligence officials and national security experts told Yahoo News they would be surprised if the agency participated in or directed the break-in.

David Maxwell, a former Special Operations officer who served in Asia for more than 20 years, told Yahoo News that “based on the reports, I would be very skeptical that this was a U.S.-conducted operation.”

“This sounds like keystone cops to me,” wrote John Nixon, a former senior leadership analyst at the CIA who briefed senior government officials on foreign leaders, including the Kims of North Korea. “The risk aversion the CIA feels for such [an] overt act would most certainly kick in and cause such a plan to die on the drawing board.”

“The agency sometimes makes mistakes and I am sure the Trump administration has told them to not feel encumbered by the usual constraints when it comes to [North Korea,]” continued Nixon in an email. “But this sounds kind of ridiculous.”

Indeed, the events that reportedly transpired inside the embassy appear ripped from a movie script.

Once inside the sparsely furnished three-story building with an adjacent swimming pool, the assailants — reportedly Asian and speaking in Korean — tied up embassy staff, as well as a visiting group of North Korean architects, putting hoods over their heads, and physically assaulted them as they interrogated them. The subject of their questions isn’t publicly known, although the chief diplomat, So Yun Sok, reportedly told the police that they grilled him about the departed ambassador and information he’d left behind in Madrid.

According to local media reports, after two hours of captivity, a woman escaped from a window and ran to a nearby nursing home. When police arrived, she appeared dazed from a head wound and unable to communicate in Spanish what had happened. When officers finally discerned what she was saying, one of them approached the embassy’s front door, which was opened by an Asian man who assured the police that there was no problem within.

Moments later, however, police were startled as embassy gates swung open and the men, carrying computers, phones and documents, raced out in two luxury vehicles with diplomatic license plates — cars that were soon discovered abandoned not far away. Entering the building, police discovered the traumatized, tied-up and hooded staff members and called emergency medical personnel to the scene.

A woman walks past North Korea's Embassy in Madrid on Feb. 28. (Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP)

Neither the embassy nor the victims have filed police reports on the matter, and initially investigators, who did not believe it was been a common burglary, pondered whether the matter involved South Korea — and whether it was tied to the upcoming summit with the U.S. and North Korean leaders — a meeting that the former ambassador was reportedly involved in planning.

If in fact there was CIA involvement in the break-in, it would not have been a simple act of espionage, according to those familiar with covert operations. Among other complexities are the legal authorities necessary to conduct such a covert operation in Spain.

Maxwell told Yahoo News that an operation in Madrid involving violent altercations or interrogations with embassy staff members would almost certainly require what’s known as a presidential finding to support a covert activity in support of vital U.S. foreign policy goals.

It’s also unclear if the brazen theft of embassy documents would be the best method of collecting intelligence on the North Korean Embassy.

According to documents from 2010 published by German outlet Der Spiegel from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Madrid is listed as one of the sites where the Special Collection Service — a joint NSA and CIA unit designed to listen in on hard-to-reach targets — is based.

In places like Madrid, the unit will often use antennas or other kinds of interception technology disguised on the roof or outside of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country. That interception technology is capable of picking up cellphone and radio frequencies “within a one hundred mile radius,” according to intelligence historian Matthew Aid.

The North Korean Embassy is only about 7 miles from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid — with key Spanish government facilities in between.

Ken Gause, a senior foreign leadership analyst and director of the international affairs group at CNA, a nonprofit analysis firm based in Virginia, says the incident is “bizarre” but “not beyond the pale.”

Gause, who has met with a range of North Korean officials over the years and written extensively on the Kim family, says it’s possible the U.S. or another foreign intelligence service hired a local team to break in, potentially to “send a signal” to North Korea before the summit or to simply gather intelligence — which may have resulted in “sloppy” tradecraft.

Gause also says that potential mistrust between the United States and Europe could affect how events have unfolded — including laying of blame.

“There is precedent of intelligence agencies doing this to foreign embassies for [counterintelligence] reasons,” he told Yahoo News in an email. “Normally we can keep it quiet but given U.S. intel ops in Europe over the last few years (bugging leaders’ personal cell phones, for example) and the anger Trump’s policies have caused with traditional allies, it is not surprising that we couldn’t keep this incident quiet, if in fact it was us who did it.”

With the North Korean threat, the U.S. often relies on partners who have official diplomatic relations with North Korea — including the U.K.., Sweden and others. Spain welcomed its first North Korean ambassador in 2014, Kim Hyok Chol — who was booted in 2017 as persona non grata following international rebuke of North Korea’s nuclear testing. Hyok Chol has resurfaced on the international scene as a key diplomat engaged in the North Korean leader’s discussions with the U.S. over denuclearization.

Kim Hyok Chol, center, in Vietnam on Feb. 26, ahead of the arrival of Kim Jong Un for his second summit with President Trump. (Photo: Minh Hoang/AP)

El Pais reported that investigators are also questioning the involvement of South Korean intelligence, whether for “diplomatic espionage” or other reasons. South Korean intelligence agencies have worked closely with U.S. intel agencies for many years, officers often sitting side by side in their respective home bases. At the moment, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasizes the importance of peace between the Koreas, for a number of reasons including economic opportunity and security, Maxwell doubts they would risk a bold operation like the break-in. “I doubt the ROK administration [South Korea] would do anything that might put [them] on bad terms with the North Koreans,” he wrote.

Conducting such a brazen operation in Spain could lead to severe consequences. For example, when CIA officials abducted Abu Omar off a public street in Milan in 2003 as a part of the agency’s rendition program, Italian authorities convicted 26 Americans in absentia. Omar later told the Guardian that U.S. administration officials “enjoying their immunity” were really the ones to blame for the events, and many at the time worried it had seriously damaged transatlantic relations.

Another possibility is that it was an inside job.

“I think it is much more likely that this was an internal North Korean action as a result of someone not doing their ‘job’ or the security services detected something wrong with members of the embassy staff,” Maxwell wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “They may have suspected someone planning to defect or someone in the embassy might have been skimming money from the illicit activities (drug trafficking, counterfeiting, etc) that are being conducted out of nearly all NK embassies.”

It’s unclear whether or not any embassy employees were sent back home as a result of the invasion. According to El Pais, very few embassy employees remain living in Spain after the expulsion of the ambassador in 2017.

In the latest report, released Wednesday afternoon, El Periodico reported that the assailants, now identified, are not believed to be intelligence operatives, but Asian mercenaries contracted by “a foreign secret service.” The men, according to that report, are believed to have flown to Spain specifically for the embassy break-in and left just after the assault.

One theory, reported El Periodico, is that the men were hired by South Korea’s intelligence agency, known to work closely with the CIA.

Whether the CIA was connected or not, the accusation could serve as propaganda for the Kim regime, and maybe that was the point.

North Korean officials, according to Maxwell, are “masters at denial and deception” who may have publicized the events in order to use the dramatic break-in as leverage in negotiations with Trump.

While some experts may balk at the notion of an “inside job,” Bob Collins, a 37-year military veteran and expert on Korean security issues, thought it wasn’t that far-fetched.

North Korean “security services are not known for their sophistication,” he told Yahoo News, “indeed they are known for brutality.”

Additional reporting by Melissa Rossi in Barcelona.

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