It was February 27, the first morning of the hugely anticipated summit between North Korea and the United States. In Hanoi, Vietnam, in the International Media Center, hundreds of reporters from across the Earth awaited news. However, when the first news broke, it was from an entirely unexpected direction.
The North Korean Embassy in Madrid, Spain, had apparently been raided by unidentified, but Asian, assailants. They had burst in, tied up staff, asked questions and stolen computers and smartphones, before speeding off in two cars. Spanish police had been unable to catch any of them.
While most Western European capitals host small North Korean embassies, the Madrid embassy was of particular interest: It had previously been the workplace of Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special envoy for the pre-summit, sub-ministerial-level denuclearization negotiations with the United States.
Yet – with the exception of a Spanish newswire reporter who had to file – the contingent of foreign correspondents from Seoul ignored the news.
First, we had bigger fish to fry – the summit. Second, despite much conversation, not one of us at the table – journalists with a combined total of more than a century of Korea reporting, and with expert sources on hand from Moscow, Seoul and Washington – had a clue what was behind it. One theory aired was that there was some kind of power struggle under way between different parties of North Koreans.
It was not just the foreign reporters. The South Korean media, normally first past the post with any tale of Northern skullduggery, did not touch the story.
The news was reported – belatedly; it took place on February 22 – by a minor online daily, El Confidentiale, on the 27th. It is not clear why there was a delay between event and report, though El Confidentiale appears to have gotten the story from the police report. The story was subsequently picked up by the leading Spanish daily El Pais, from where it went global.
It was The Washington Post – its national-security desk, rather than its Asian desk – that got the big scoop on March 15. According to the Post, which did not reveal its sources, the group that planned and executed the embassy raid was Cheollima
El Pais suggested possible involvement of the US Central Intelligence Agency. If correct, this would suggest that American spooks are very blunt tools indeed. But a job like this on the eve of a hugely important summit? It seems dubious.
Another possibility is that those who carried out the raid were freelancers: Intelligence agencies frequently employ hired guns to do their dirty work. (As witness the unfortunate Vietnamese and Indonesian dupes that North Korea recruited to carry out the spectacular assassination of Kim Jong Nam – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother – in Kuala Lumpur Airport in 2017.)
But it was The Washington Post – its national-security desk, rather than its Asian desk – that got the big scoop on March 15. According to the Post, which did not reveal its sources, the group that planned and executed the embassy raid was Cheollima.
Cheollima, a legendary Chinese winged horse, is a byword for “speed” in Northeast Asia. The byword has been adopted by Pyongyang propaganda to praise those who work or carry out tasks swiftly. It is also the name of the shadowy group “Cheollima Civil Defense” or “Free Joseon” (the latter being the North Korean name for North Korea). It claims to be a free North Korean movement and identifies with the Korean Provisional Government set up during the Japanese colonial period, suggesting it sees itself as a provisional government for North Korea.
On the homepage of its website – a scanty but tantalizing source of information – Cheollima has recently starting marketing blockchain visas to a free North Korea – clearly a publicity stunt as much as a fundraiser. But it suggests that the group may not be well funded. It is unknown how many members Cheollima has or what their backgrounds are – though North Korean defectors and/or South Korean right-wingers are the likeliest bets.
The group shot to prominence in 2017 when it helped spirit Kim Han Sol from Macau to apparent safety in an unknown location. He was the son of Kim Jong Nam, the man assassinated in Kuala Lumpur. The younger Kim subsequently appeared in a brief YouTube video posted by Cheollima, identifying himself and stating that he was with his mother and sister.
Kim Han Sol is a significant asset. His English is fluent, and he has criticized the Kim regime. However, as someone with the Kim family bloodline he could, feasibly, be accepted by North Koreans as a leader.
But what would Cheollima seek in the Madrid embassy? Were they aided or assisted by US or South Korean spooks? If so, does this suggest that a regime-change plot is under way?
Governments-in-exile present real threats to regimes. The most famous in modern history coalesced in London during World War II. From there, secret agents representing these governments – notably Czech and French – were recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the covert paramilitary organization designed, in Winston Churchill’s words, to “set Europe ablaze.”
Their wartime achievements were significant. On the eve of D-Day, SOE agents parachuted into France to coordinate with the French Resistance and sabotage and delay the movement of German units across France. And Czech SOE agents carried out the most famous assassination of World War II when they rid the world of the notorious Nazi Reinhardt “The Man with the Iron Heart” Heydrich in Prague.
Who might sponsor or support Cheollima? After it helped the junior Kim find safety, the group put out a public message thanking the government of the Netherlands, as well as those of China and the United States, for assistance.
But would any of these governments be party to a high-profile raid on an embassy – a significant diplomatic crime, even if nobody was injured or killed?
Of course, the CIA must know of Cheollima. But would the US or Dutch governments support any kind of regime-change organization? Particularly given that, after the West’s long and bloody disaster in Iraq, governments-in-exile have fallen from favor? Moreover, there is no indication that US President Donald Trump is a warrior president, or favors the neocon tactic of regime change.
Though Beijing did, after Pyongyang purges in the 1950s, offer sanctuary to several North Korean generals as a possible insurance policy should they need to overthrow the Kim regime, it is difficult to imagine the current Chinese leadership allowing a guerrilla army to mass on its frontier with Korea.
In South Korea, there is zero appetite for the hosting of a provisional government. Provisional county organizations were established by Seoul after the Korean War, but have long since withered away. Today’s Moon Jae-in administration is keen to engage Pyongyang, and Moon himself has struck up an apparent friendship with Kim Jong Un.
Throughout, North Korean state media have been silent on the issue. Nor did the North Korean Embassy in Madrid file a report with Spanish police. This is odd, as it has significant grounds for demanding an investigation. Or is Pyongyang covering something up? None of this is known.
Meanwhile, Cheollima’s discreet profile is sensible – for North Korea’s international spy network is almost certainly sniffing out its trail. And that network is even less reticent about spilling blood than Israel’s Mossad or Russia’s GRU.
In 1983, North Korean agents bombed members of the South Korean cabinet in Burma. In 1987, two spies blew up a South Korean airliner in the Middle East, killing all aboard. In 1997, they are believed to have shot dead a relative of North Korea’s Kim clan who had secretly defected to the South. And in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 they masterminded the now infamous Kuala Lumpur attack on Kim Jong Nam – a hit that, with its combination of deadly spies, beautiful women and a terrifying murder weapon, would befit the most dastardly plot in any James Bond novel.
It is rare that reporters turn down opportunities to break or cover such juicy news on their beats. But there are so many unanswered questions hanging over this affair that nobody in Seoul is leaping at the chance to cover a story that – to borrow a phrase from that master of dirty tricks, Churchill – is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”