Fighting North Korea Outside Its Borders


Screams from a terrified woman… in a public street… in a foreign language… running from armed home invaders. Neighbours alert the police, and one of the criminals in question casually answers the door. He says he doesn’t know anything about the break-in, the beatings, the interrogations, nor the temporary imprisonment (as the woman’s complaint, then being translated from Korean into Spanish, alleges). But no! The police officers are not welcome to enter the property and see for themselves; it is a question of sovereignty – North Korean sovereignty. The house is, after all, a converted embassy. 

A few hours later the perpetrators simply drive away – watched anxiously by the same gawking neighbours – leaving behind a traumatised staff, bound, gagged, and slowly wriggling free. The police return on cue, and despite the obvious assault and theft that had just occurred, no one is interested in filing an official complaint, let alone pressing charges in the event of an arrest.

From all directions, there is an air of mobsterism: a brazen, daylight crime; the calm, authoritative, legally nuanced dealings with the police; the scene of eight brutalised victims refusing to cooperate in any way; and the sense that justice – if ever possible (or desirable) – will only come through reciprocal violence.

The ‘criminals’ – a group known as Free Chosun (formerly Chollima Civil Defense) – first came to any real public attention in the aftermath of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Malaysia, for apparently spiriting Nam’s son, Kim Han-sol, (and other family members) away into safe keeping. The motivation for the rescue – all the way down to the public thank you message by the 21 year old Han-sol – felt more along the lines of grooming an heir-to-the-throne, than that of international witness protection.

It all seemed a touch ad hoc, a fortunate enterprise rather than a diligent calculation. And Free Chosun’s website ( – still with its former name in the title – is a backyard effort if ever there was one. A single scrolling page… with plenty of donation links. Which is why this latest raid feels so different. The planning and execution has a near military finish to it, including how they adapted so impressively to their own missteps (so much so, that it was originally suspected to be a CIA operation). Their amateur days are seemingly over.

It is that idea of a growing – and now efficient – organisation that would likely worry North Korea. Washing purposefully around the global community of defectors for decades, the formation of a North Korean government in exile has strangely never managed to take hold. Likely due to the focus on securing leadership as a prerequisite. For many years, people hoped Hwang Jang-yop, a key author of Juche literature, and the defector with the most immediate name-brand recognition (and of greatest former importance to the regime in Pyongyang), would be this figurehead.

The expectation was too much, and poorly conceived. Escaped North Koreans tend to want what most people do: freedom, a peaceful life, and the safety of their family and friends. They don’t want to end up like Kim Jong-nam… and who could blame them. Because people don’t tend to gather around anonymous political forces, this first hurdle toward an exiled government was also the last.

It is in the nature of this escalation in Madrid, that Free Chosun are fashioning a solution. Exactly what they got from the robbery is open to be guessed, but they were deliberate in what they went after: computers, hard drives, cell phones. Rebel movements over the centuries have always targeted – by necessity – the weak points of their enemies (outposts and regional infrastructure). When you can’t fight, you frustrate.

This was not that. Free Chosun wanted information from Pyongyang, not anger. North Korea uses its embassies for the illegal transiting of goods, money laundering, and covert operations, such as that against Nam in Malaysia. Counting their loot from the Madrid raid, the robbers will be hoping for contact lists, emails, bank accounts, trading partners, sympathisers, and spy networks. The tactic here, is a much deeper assault on the Kim regime. By interrupting North Korea’s cross-border operations, maybe Free Chosun can make their actions felt back inside the palaces of Pyongyang.

North Korea are a hard target: legally protected both inside its borders, and inside its embassies. But this immunity only extends so far: the behaviour of embassy staff can be enough to get them expelled; and prosecutions, the seizures of funds, and the public airing of dealings, can be enough to permanently dissuade foreign enablers. This is certainly the goal anyway.

So this all begins to smell a little more like a preliminary assault, than a one-off attack. And perhaps most significant, are the self-made claims that Free Chosun are being assisted in their actions by foreign governments, having tipped their hat to Taiwan, Holland and America following the rescue of Kim Han-sol; and in the lead-up to Madrid posting cryptically on their website that they had “received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country”, with a “highly dangerous situation”.

Much of this stretches credulity. So far, their public successes certainly have a feel of high-level planning, financing, and operational experience to them. But none of it demands an explanation on the level of global conspiracy. Still, this is a careful game, and if Free Chosun can start making actual changes, improvements, even symbolic grand gestures like harbouring dissidents or picking deliberately at the weak links in a regime, then they might be able to embody something that looks like a government in exile. So a little hyperbole – if indeed that is what is happening here – can perhaps be excused.

What is certain, is that the attack in Madrid would now have Kim Jong-un’s attention, and in that, a strange, immoral satisfaction can be found. I challenge anyone concerned about North Korea’s international harassment – even assassinations – of journalists, publishers, film makers, and particularly South Korean politicians and North Korean defectors, to not gain a little morbid pleasure here.

For someone who has, for so long, exploited the difficulties of applying international legal principles, Kim Jong-un is learning that he is vulnerable in the same way. It is not a high minded, nor a morally grounded sentiment, but where judicial systems fail, extrajudicial ones are likely to take over. Criminality becomes the cause for celebration, and retributive justice the only means of satisfaction… my only fear is, that none of this will make any substantive difference.