He Thought He Was Serving to North Koreans Escape. Now He May Finish Up In Jail.


By the point Christopher Ahn signed on to the mission inside North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, the plan was already finalized. Different folks had mapped out methods to restrain the workers, methods to hoover up any helpful intel supplies, and most vital, methods to make it appear like the diplomat they have been grabbing was being kidnapped relatively than defecting — a fiction that might spare his kin again dwelling from brutal retribution.

The plan had been devised by members of Cheollima Civil Protection, a secretive group set as much as assist defectors from North Korea escape as a part of a much bigger plan to take down the Kim dynasty. However Ahn was no mercenary for rent. He was a volunteer who had pitched in on tamer missions by soothing the fears of would-be defectors anxious about what may occur in the event that they broke free. He had landed in Spain that very morning figuring out nothing apart from that the group wanted his help.

Contained in the embassy’s basement hours later, the group obtained an unwelcome shock: The diplomat spooked and adjusted his thoughts. He wouldn’t be defecting in any case. Ahn and the others slipped out of the embassy and into getaway vehicles.

Again in Los Angeles a number of weeks later, Ahn welcomed two FBI brokers into his dwelling and informed them the story over tea and home made macadamia nut and white chocolate cookies. Ahn figured the FBI wished the small print for its personal intelligence functions, since Cheollima’s founder incessantly met with the identical brokers to relay data from the group’s operations all over the world. Or maybe it wished to assist preserve him protected — a notion bolstered quickly after the assembly, when the brokers warned him that that they had credible intelligence that the North Korean authorities now wished to assassinate him.

A number of days afterward, Ahn went to the Cheollima founder’s condo to drop off some packing containers. US Marshals have been ready inside for the founder, however arrested Ahn as an alternative.

Spanish authorities have been treating the incident like an actual kidnapping and had focused Ahn as a key conspirator. Extra stunning nonetheless, the FBI was serving to the Spanish prosecutors. A federal choose in Los Angeles will quickly rule whether or not Ahn must be extradited to Madrid, the place he faces as much as 24 years in jail on expenses of unlawful entry, assault, unlawful confinement, and being a part of a legal group.

Spanish authorities pointed to the kidnapping paraphernalia that Cheollima left behind, together with balaclavas and pretend weapons. They’ve additionally obtained sworn testimony from North Korean diplomats contained in the embassy, together with the would-be defector, who stated the Cheollima males attacked the diplomats, and that he had not given consent for the mission and had by no means harbored any need to flee his nation.

Ahn and Cheollima members identified that that is precisely what you’d anticipate him to say, given the dangers he faces again dwelling. The group was responding to a official plea for assist, they stated, and would by no means attempt to drive somebody to go away in opposition to their will — which they proved after they backed off after the diplomat modified his thoughts. “Would anybody raid an embassy hoping to steer somebody to defect?” Ahn stated. “No method.”

Cheollima had pulled off high-octane missions earlier than, together with months earlier when a diplomat in North Korea’s Rome embassy informed his colleagues he and his spouse have been going for a stroll, then ducked right into a ready automotive close by. Nonetheless, the Madrid operation was a dangerous escalation for the group and for its founder, an activist-turned-revolutionary named Adrian Hong.

However Ahn didn’t mastermind the kidnapping ruse. A BuzzFeed Information investigation — based mostly on accounts from members of the group and others conversant in the occasions, in addition to Spanish court docket paperwork and testimony from legislation enforcement — reveals that Ahn was in actual fact a serving to hand who tagged alongside on the premise that the diplomat wished to flee the Kim regime. But Ahn has been swept up in a fragile geopolitical incident involving a number of Western governments, an infamously repressive authoritarian authorities, and an impartial grassroots community brazenly plotting its demise.

Spanish authorities believed Cheollima was appearing on behalf of or in live performance with US intelligence, however their American counterparts denied any connection, in accordance with an individual conversant in the Spanish prosecution. These denials helped precipitate a call to convey expenses, with some on the Spanish facet believing the US would not permit any Cheollima members to be extradited, which might show that they have been intelligence brokers.

However the Division of Justice is pursuing extradition for Ahn, who’s the one member of the group in custody. The others, together with Hong, are in hiding. The DOJ, the FBI, and Spanish legislation enforcement all declined to remark.

On the time of his arrest, Ahn was about to launch a meals complement startup. It has been dashed to items, and he now wears an ankle monitor and might’t enterprise out at evening or greater than 15 miles from his dwelling. The choose in his case has stated he seems to be a “good and honorable man.” Ahn’s lawyer has argued that extraditing him to Spain places him at the next threat of assassination as a result of Spain has diplomatic relations with North Korea, making it simpler for North Koreans to journey to Madrid to focus on him. However below the US extradition treaty with Spain, the Justice Division should ship him to Madrid if there may be possible trigger — a low burden of proof — to convey him on trial there for crimes that might even be crimes within the US.

Ahn, 40, stated he had jumped on a aircraft to Madrid on quick discover for a similar cause he had participated in different Cheollima missions: to assist folks. “I’m only a man who was attempting to do the proper factor,” he stated.

Philip Cheung for BuzzFeed Information

Christopher Ahn poses for a portrait at Lafayette Park in Los Angeles.

As a child, Ahn didn’t suppose a lot about North Korea. His mother and father, who moved to the US from South Korea earlier than he was born, taught him to assimilate as a lot as doable into American tradition. His mom, aunt, and grandmother saved his Korean identification alive with songs, fables, and conventional meals equivalent to beef radish soup and omurice. However he grew up like every American boy in a suburb of Los Angeles, taking part in baseball and consuming apple pie.

Within the Nineteen Nineties, his father Younger Chul Ahn, a former US Air Power radar technician, began a dressy trouser firm, known as Zannini to evoke high-quality Italian artisanship. He struck offers with Chinese language producers, and issues have been going effectively till he started having abdomen troubles. A biopsy got here again with unusual outcomes and one other was ordered. Abdomen most cancers. 4 days later, he died, leaving 17-year-old Christopher as the person of the home.

Ahn and his mom wanted to get the trousers out of China for the household enterprise to outlive, in order that they didn’t inform the manufacturing unit homeowners about Younger Chul’s demise for seven months. Ahn attended highschool and ran the corporate by evening, telling the Chinese language manufacturing unit homeowners that his father was away and had empowered him to make selections within the meantime. When the product lastly made it to Los Angeles, Ahn and his mom flew to China to come back clear. The manufacturing unit homeowners agreed to proceed working with Ahn and his mom in honor of his father.

After highschool, Ahn joined the US Marine Corps Reserve. “I wished to seek out the quickest method of turning into a person,” he stated. Whereas in boot camp, his mom nonetheless despatched clothes swatches for him to make selections about Zannini merchandise. After a number of months of coaching, Ahn attended the College of California Irvine, finding out political science. In 2005, a 12 months after commencement, Ahn’s unit deployed to Iraq the place he served as an intelligence analyst in Fallujah.

Courtesy Christopher Ahn

Christopher Ahn throughout his deployment to Iraq

In his downtime, Ahn informed others the story of how his aunt was saved by a US soldier throughout the Korean Struggle. His grandmother was fleeing Seoul together with her two daughters when she misplaced observe of Ahn’s aunt, who was only a toddler. Discovering the soldier, she might solely say in English, “Child, child!” The soldier understood and helped her discover the kid.

“That man fully modified our lives,” Ahn stated. “Our household seems to be at that soldier as a real hero.”

After the Marines he hung out in Washington, D.C. He joined a veterans advocacy group run by David Bellavia, the one dwelling Medal of Honor recipient. Bellavia informed BuzzFeed Information that Ahn modified his views on the Iraq Struggle and what it meant to be a soldier. “I appeared on the enemy as somebody I needed to pacify by killing them,” Bellavia stated. “For him, it was all the time in regards to the individuals who have been victimized. I’ve by no means met an individual who wore the uniform who had a lot empathy.”

Funding dried up after the 2008 monetary disaster and Ahn discovered himself attempting to determine what to do together with his life. That’s when a good friend launched him to Adrian Hong, a charismatic and supremely assured 25-year-old who was additionally attempting to type out his future.

Hong had created a serious humanitarian group, Liberty in North Korea, whereas a Yale pupil. He had a day job as a guide to startups, however Hong was turning into more and more satisfied that no nation or group on earth was going to do something in regards to the devastating situations tens of millions of North Koreans have been compelled to endure on this planet’s most totalitarian state.

He’d already had some hair-raising run-ins, together with getting arrested in China attempting to assist six North Koreans escape in 2006. He was launched after strain from U.S. officers. In a uncommon transfer, the North Koreans have been additionally freed — normally China sends escapees again over the border, calling them “financial migrants” relatively than asylum-seekers.

Ahn didn’t sometimes search out such adrenaline-fueled exploits. “He isn’t somebody I consider as a door kicker,” a classmate from the Darden Faculty of Enterprise on the College of Virginia informed BuzzFeed Information. “He’s the individual you’ll be able to depend on to hearken to you, a giant coronary heart form of man.”

However Ahn felt impressed by Hong’s sense of objective. Ahn was headed to Darden, however he informed Hong to remain in contact and let him know if he might ever assist out.

Almost a decade later, Ahn was at a bar on the Z Hostel in Manila — on trip by himself after a good friend pulled out on the final minute — when his telephone rang.

“The place are you?” Hong requested. When Ahn informed him he was within the Philippines, Hong was thrilled. Ahn might get to Taiwan quicker than anybody else within the free community of volunteers Hong known as Cheollima Civil Protection, after a legendary flying horse of Korean lore. Hong had developed from advocate to instigator, sending anti-Kim propaganda into North Korea and constructing the beginnings of a authorities in exile. He was significantly impressed by Libya’s opposition motion in opposition to Muammar Gaddafi, which he discovered about in individual throughout the 2011 civil battle there. Hong and Ahn stayed in contact all through this time, however Ahn had solely attended occasional Cheollima conferences and had by no means been concerned in any main actions.

It was February 2017. The day earlier than Hong known as Ahn, two younger girls smeared a nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korea’s chief, on the airport in Kuala Lumpur. Jong Nam had lived exterior of the nation for years and hadn’t proven any indicators of desirous to contest his half brother’s declare to rule the nation, however North Korean brokers recruited the ladies and oversaw the assassination nonetheless.

After Jong Nam was killed, his son Kim Han Sol had contacted Hong for assist, telling him that their regular police guard in Macau had disappeared they usually feared for his or her security, Hong informed Ahn, in accordance with Ahn. Along with his father gone, Han Sol was the one one from that bloodline who might legitimately declare to be descended from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Hong informed them to get to Taiwan, comparatively impartial floor, whereas he sorted out a rustic to supply them asylum. And he requested Ahn to purchase their tickets and meet them there as an escort. Ahn caught the following flight to Taipei.

Courtesy Free Joseon

Ahn with Kim Han Sol in Macau in 2017

Arriving from Macau, Han Sol greeted Ahn within the airport with the codename “Steve.” Ahn introduced them to a lounge. He spoke softly to Han Sol’s mom in Korean and gave his iPad to Han Sol’s teenage sister to look at Netflix.

Lastly, phrase got here via that the Netherlands would grant them asylum. Ahn purchased one other spherical of tickets on his bank card and took the household to the gate, however they have been prevented from boarding by an airport official who was alarmed to see their North Korean passports.

“Folks say we’re the Underground Railroad, but it surely was actually simply me shopping for tickets with my bank card on Expedia,” Ahn stated.

Inside hours, two males figuring out themselves as being from the US CIA confirmed up and requested to talk to the household. And after greater than a day of ready, the airport authorities agreed to let the household journey to the Netherlands as deliberate. Ahn purchased yet one more set of round-trip tickets.

A crew from Cheollima, together with a lawyer specializing in political asylums, waited on the airport in Amsterdam, however the household by no means got here out of customs. Hong informed Ahn that he believed the CIA interdicted and took them to an undisclosed location.

The mission thrilled Ahn, and he felt it mirrored Cheollima’s compassionate intentions. Regardless of the mysterious look of Cheollima’s web site, which included ciphers equivalent to “Golden Bell Forsythia 764099 383642 708027 021412 345034,” Ahn stated many of the members he met have been “yuppies” doing their finest to assist folks.

“They’re good youngsters who listened to their mother and father, bought good grades, good jobs and adopted the principles,” he stated. “They’re individuals who consider people can get collectively and make a distinction on this planet… It’s not #idealism, it’s actual.”

Hong got here throughout because the reluctant chief, idealistic and motivated however burdened by how a lot he’d taken on, Ahn stated.

“Adrian was exhausted from this,” Ahn stated. “He was broke from it, however he felt if he didn’t do it, no one else would.”

Philip Cheung for BuzzFeed Information

Ahn poses for a portrait at Lafayette Park in Los Angeles.

In February 2019 a message popped up on Ahn’s Sign. There was a mission in Spain: Was he up for it?

Since Taipei, Ahn had carried out smaller missions right here or there, however nothing main. He declined to reveal particulars, however stated it concerned serving to calm the fears of would-be defectors in Europe. He initially turned the brand new operation down, however determined on the final minute he might spare a three-day weekend.

He touched down in Madrid on Feb. 22 with out the slightest clue what this mission was about. He didn’t even register how delicate a second it was: Donald Trump was simply 5 days away from a gathering with North Korean chief Kim Jong Un in Vietnam.

Ahn met up with members of Cheollima at an Airbnb. He had a bathe and a sandwich earlier than getting a full briefing from Hong, who was personally main the mission.

The senior-most official on the Madrid embassy, a industrial attaché known as Yun Suk So, had gotten phrase to the group that he wished to defect alongside different members of the embassy, Hong informed him. Hong and different members of the embassy had been making ready for weeks, and Hong had already visited the embassy below the guise of Matthew Chao, the pinnacle of a made-up firm in Dubai known as Baron Stone Capital.

Just a few months earlier, in November 2018, Cheollima had helped rescue the North Korean ambassador to Italy, Jo Track Gil, and his spouse from Rome in a mission Ahn was not concerned in. However their daughter was left behind within the chaos of their sprint for freedom. Not lengthy afterward she was bundled again to Pyongyang, the place she confronted a lifetime of virtually sure distress because the baby of traitors. In North Korea, if one member of a household is accused of against the law or of disloyalty, three generations of their household are imprisoned in state-run camps as punishment.

Diplomats reside in fixed worry of being thought-about disloyal. They all the time journey in pairs to conferences, to allow them to regulate one another. So feared he and his household have been being watched always, together with within the embassy.

Hong’s resolution was to create the phantasm of a kidnapping. If the mission was profitable, the group wouldn’t take any form of public credit score for it, and the North Korean authorities wouldn’t make certain the place to direct its anger. Along with the imitation weapons and balaclavas, Hong and one other member had purchased Mace spray, crowbars, plastic restraints, and steel handcuffs. They’d additionally purchased sweet and toys for So’s son.

The precedence was getting the attaché, his spouse, and his son out of the embassy, however the group had some secondary aims, too. If doable, they’d attempt to persuade different officers to hitch them. And they might reap the benefits of being contained in the embassy — technically North Korean territory — to create some anti-regime propaganda movies. Any intelligence gathered can be a bonus.

“I used to be shocked by the depth of the plan,” Ahn stated. It was essentially the most “kinetic” operation he’d heard of for the reason that founding of the group, however he felt reassured that they have been aiming to get out and in in minutes, relatively than stick round inside for hours. After listening to in regards to the Italian operation, it made much more sense to stage a kidnapping to guard defectors, he stated.

Ahn wasn’t planning on doing something too bodily taxing: He had a fractured wrist on the time, and he has again ache so extreme that he typically makes use of a cane. The Division of Veterans Affairs has given him a 60% incapacity score from the wear and tear and tear of the Marines.

The group had been planning for weeks, so Ahn stated he left the operational particulars to the opposite members. The primary factor on his thoughts was creating a giant fish barbecue that evening on the Airbnb to welcome the North Koreans and have fun their bravery.

“I used to be engaged on the grocery listing,” he stated.

Surveillance digital camera footage from the North Korea embassy reveals Cheollima members getting into the constructing. America District Court docket for the Central District of California

Simply earlier than 4:40 p.m. the identical day he landed, Hong, Ahn, and eight different Cheollima members stood on the door of the North Korean embassy. A number of different members have been ready close by in vehicles for the exfiltration.

Hong, carrying a black swimsuit and a tie with white polka dots, pressed the buzzer, telling the groundskeeper he had an appointment with So, the attaché. The groundskeeper let him inside to attend close to the door, however when he left to seek out So, Hong pushed open the door for the remainder of his crew to enter.

As soon as they made it inside, the balaclavas got here out, they usually rounded up the embassy’s personnel and positioned them in an workplace with plastic restraints binding their wrists.

“Our concern was whether or not there have been video cameras contained in the embassy,” Ahn stated. “The thought was to carry out in entrance of them in the beginning.”

However it shortly turned clear that there was no inside surveillance and Hong stated in English, “Transition, transition.” The crew understood that to imply they may change their demeanor from mysterious intruders to coolheaded rescuers.

Hong and one other member went with So into the basement to debate the small print of his defection and whether or not others from the embassy may very well be persuaded to hitch his household, Cheollima members stated. BuzzFeed Information has reviewed a partial video clip from the basement through which the would-be defector is laughing and seems to be relaxed; Cheollima hasn’t launched the entire video.

One member of the group stood guard with So’s spouse and son, whereas others went room to room checking for anybody else within the embassy’s many rooms and closets. The constructing was largely empty — besides the propaganda room, which was full of images of Kim Jong Un and mantras of the regime.

“It was miserable,” Ahn stated. “These have been the elites of North Korea they usually had nothing.”

Then got here the misstep that might threaten the entire group’s survival. They hadn’t seen the spouse of one other senior official, who believed she was in mortal hazard after listening to South Korean-accented males rush into the embassy, in accordance with her court docket testimony.

She escaped onto a terrace and jumped to the bottom under, injuring her head and leg. Managing to limp out a backdoor to the road, she hailed a passing motorist, who took her to a clinic and known as the police. Utilizing Google Translate, officers realized she was saying the embassy was below assault.

Unaware of any points, Hong and different members believed the mission was practically completed. One of many Cheollima members was himself a North Korean defector who had earned asylum within the U.S., they usually filmed him getting into the embassy half an hour after Hong and others, crying as he touched North Korean soil. They filmed one other member flattening images of Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il and smashing them on the ground. North Koreans are inculcated with the assumption that their leaders are godlike and undefeatable. The thought was to launch the footage later, as anti-regime propaganda, with out mentioning the place it was filmed.

Then the police pressed the buzzer. Hong, his lengthy hair tied right into a bun, placed on a “Pricey Chief” pin with Kim Jong Un’s face on it and answered the door. Hong was born in Mexico to South Korean missionaries, so he spoke sufficient Spanish to steer the officers there have been no points.

When the officers left, different Cheollima members congratulated him. However Hong was confused: What girl have been the police referring to? Talking to the attaché, it quickly dawned on them that an precise resident of the embassy had escaped and known as the police.

The telephones started ringing nonstop. The cavernous rooms, with tiled flooring and few furnishings, amplified the sound to the purpose the place it was arduous to suppose. Quickly Hong got here up from the basement with unhealthy information. Information of the escapee, in addition to the ringing telephones, had deeply unnerved So, who believed North Korean authorities can be coming quickly. He known as off his personal defection and requested Cheollima to go away straight away.

It was darkish out by now.

Ahn and the group member who’d been filmed getting into the embassy crying took off in a automotive by themselves. Hong and one other member scaled the wall to get to the road behind the embassy, the place they bought into an Uber, which Hong had ordered utilizing the faux identify Oswaldo Trump. The group left behind the imitation weapons, balaclavas, handcuffs, and plastic wrist restraints.

Cheollima members escape the North Korean embassy in Madrid. America District Court docket for the Central District of California

Ahn and his companion have been on their very own with a cellphone that had solely 2% of battery left, simply sufficient to coordinate with different members of the group to select up their passports in a bush in a delegated space. From there, each group made their very own approach to Portugal over land so they may fly to the U.S.

After midnight the lads discovered a taxi driver and Ahn persuaded him in damaged Spanish to drive them six hours to Porto, saying they wanted to get there for his brother’s marriage ceremony. They drove via the evening and managed to guide flights dwelling. The remainder of the group arrived in New York for a debriefing, however Ahn had conferences to attend on Monday for his meals complement startup, so he flew to Los Angeles.

The plan was to instantly inform the FBI. Hong later informed members of the group that the brokers have been wide-eyed as they heard the story however gave no views on any penalties, asking for the names of everybody concerned.

Hong refused, however he did hand the brokers a trove of intelligence from a foil-lined communications room on the North Korean embassy, together with a Huawei cell phone, USB sticks, two computer systems, and two arduous drives they’d grabbed earlier than fleeing.

For weeks, the group was cautiously optimistic that their failed mission wouldn’t have any additional penalties. When Hong flew from New York to Los Angeles, the place he additionally lived, Ahn picked him up on the airport they usually mentioned the case. “If solely we had identified in regards to the spouse,” Ahn recalled Hong saying.

The FBI pressed for extra data and Hong requested if Ahn would converse to them as effectively, believing they have been checking the small print to have the ability to higher shield the group from any confusion or retribution. Ahn agreed, figuring he would assist clear up any misunderstandings.

In the meantime, Hong renamed Cheollima as Free Joseon on March 1, 2019, saying that “tens of tens of millions of our fellow Koreans stay enslaved by a wicked energy dominated by a corrupt few made rich by the toils of many.” Free Joseon declared itself the provisional authorities making ready for the tip of the Kim regime.

Philip Cheung for BuzzFeed Information

Ahn shows his ankle monitor.

Unbeknownst to the group on the time, the Spanish authorities had recognized the lads concerned within the Madrid mission and gathered testimony from the North Korean diplomats, who informed prosecutors that the Cheollima volunteers had been overwhelmed and terrorized them. So informed prosecutors the lads had raided the embassy and tried to drive him to defect, partly by telling In order that the North Korean authorities was about to break down.

Ahn stated that’s unfaithful, however believes the lads felt pressured to point out they’d put up a struggle to keep away from retribution.

Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish entrepreneur with lengthy ties to North Korea, informed BuzzFeed Information that all the folks within the embassy besides So had been despatched again to Pyongyang not lengthy after the occasion.

By the tip of March, the Spanish court docket eliminated a secrecy order on the case revealing one other element: The FBI had been cooperating with the Spanish investigation and had knowledgeable them that Hong had handed them embassy materials.

Across the similar time, the FBI — with out disclosing it was working with the Spanish authorities — informed Hong and Ahn that the US authorities had credible intelligence that the North Korean authorities wished to assassinate them. The FBI later confirmed the assassination menace with Ahn’s legal professionals, court docket paperwork present.

But nothing occurred straight away. Hong informed Ahn he was breaking his lease and transferring into one other home to keep away from reporters and any would-be assassins. A number of weeks later, Hong requested Ahn whether or not he’d like a surveillance digital camera to place up exterior his home for cover — Hong had ordered a couple of too many. “Take what you need and drop the remainder at my outdated condo,” Hong informed him, in accordance with Ahn.

Ahn headed over to the condo and opened the door with a key Hong had given him. Standing inside have been a number of startled US Marshals, who instantly arrested him.

“I wasn’t anxious at first,” Ahn stated. “I saved saying, ‘can anyone please name the FBI or State Division to clear this up. There’s clearly been a mistake.’”

“I believed I’d be dwelling for dinner,” he stated. As an alternative, he was booked and positioned within the Metropolitan Detention Middle in Los Angeles, the place he spent three months.

The choose granted him bail regardless of the opposition of the U.S. Division of Justice, declaring that a lot of the proof in opposition to him got here from officers of a rustic that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the U.S. Members of the family put up their houses to satisfy the practically $1.3 million bail. One other situation: completely no contact with Free Joseon.

For the following 12 months and 9 months, he was below full home arrest. He couldn’t even assist his spouse convey groceries from the automotive.

Late final 12 months, the choose modified his bail in order that he might journey in a restricted zone from 8 a.m. to eight p.m., which permits him to take care of his mom, who has a illness known as trigeminal neuralgia that causes excessive ache within the face, and his 99-year-old grandmother, at their dwelling close by.

Greater than two years after Madrid, Ahn stated his life has been upended with none finish in sight. His profession is on maintain, some associates have turned their backs on him, and he and his spouse have postpone having youngsters till his scenario is resolved.

However he has no regrets. “I attempt to not really feel bitter,” Ahn stated. “What it comes right down to is that if somebody asks for assist and I’ve the aptitude of serving to, then I don’t need to be the kind of man who says no.” ●