US arrests former marine over North Korea embassy raid

Nicola Smith
North Korea's embassy in Madrid was raided in February - REUTERS

The US authorities have made their first arrest in connection with the mysterious raid on North Korea’s Madrid embassy in February when a group of assailants allegedly tied up staff and stole sensitive information. 

On Thursday, federal officers arrested Christopher Ahn, a former US marine and a member of the secretive Free Joseon group, who are dedicated to overthrowing Kim Jong-un’s regime and who carried out the bold daylight assault on the embassy. 

In a related development, armed agents also raided the apartment of Adrian Hong, the alleged leader of the group, also known as Cheollima Civil Defense (CCD). Mr Hong was not present at the time. 

Mr Ahn appeared on Friday in a Los Angeles federal court and his case has now been sealed at the request of his lawyer. The US justice department has declined to comment. 

The authorities’ action marks a dramatic turn for the shadowy group who had initially offered information from stolen electronics that included flash drives, computers and a mobile phone to the FBI after they escaped from Spain via Portugal back to the US. 

North Korea experts speculated that the information could have been invaluable for intelligence gathering. 

In a March 26 statement, one month after the raid, the CCD claimed that it had shared “certain information of enormous potential value” with the FBI “under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality” and that it was “shared voluntarily and on their request.”

However, it added: “Those terms appear to have been broken.”

Last week a Spanish judicial source the material had been returned by Spanish authorities to Pyongyang’s mission after being returned two weeks previously by the FBI to the Spanish court investigating the raid. 

The embassy raid was carried out just days before the failed Hanoi summit Credit: Leah Millis/Reuters

Last month, a 14-page court summary issued by Jose de la Mata, a Spanish high court judge, alleged that a group of at least ten people stormed the North Korean embassy on the afternoon of February 22, restraining and physically beating some staff while holding them hostage for hours. 

The document claimed they were armed with knives, machetes, metal bars and fake pellet guns and that one diplomat had sustained “several injuries” while his assailants tried to persuade him to defect. 

Spain is seeking the extradition of several members of the group. 

The CCD strongly denied the accusations, issuing a statement that painted a vastly different picture of events, claiming that had “responded to an urgent situation” at the embassy and that they were “invited” into the building.

“Contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten. Out of respect for the host nation of Spain, no weapons were used,” they said. 

The incident came at a sensitive time, just days ahead of a second summit in Hanoi between Donald Trump, the US president, and Kim Jong-un to try to resolve an impasse over nuclear disarmament. 

Their talks collapsed over a disagreement about sanctions relief, leading to increased tensions in recent weeks. 

Following the Spanish court statement, North Korea denounced the embassy raid as a “grave terrorist attack” and cited rumours that the FBI was partially behind the raid.

The US state department has said Washington had nothing to do with it and the CIA has also denied any involvement.  

On Friday, the CCD issued a statement on its website by Lee Wolosky, Mr Hong’s lawyer. 

“We are dismayed that the US Department of Justice has decided to execute warrants against US persons that derive from criminal complaints filed by the North Korean regime,” he said. 

“The last US citizen who fell into the custody of the Kim regime returned home maimed from torture and did not survive,” he added, in reference to Otto Warmbier, a US student detained by the regime, who died in 2017 after returning to the US in a coma. 

“We have received no assurances from the US government about the safety and security of the US nationals it is now targeting.”

A US Justice Department spokeswoman told Reuters that extradition treaties “generally provide that an individual who has been extradited to another country to face criminal charges cannot thereafter be extradited to a third country without the consent of the original country.”