A blog by Grant Montgomery, co-founder of Family Care Foundation, a 501c3 that provides emergency services and sustained development for families on 5 continents. This site highlights the plight of 300,000 North Koreans who have fled their country due to the brutal oppression of a Stalinist North Korean regime, as well as those still living in North Korea.
On the afternoon of February 22, 2019, a tall Asian man rang the doorbell of the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. His business card identified him as Matthew Chao.
About thirty minutes later, an employee of a nearby gym was driving past the Embassy and came across a woman, her face covered in blood, who had jumped from a second-floor balcony. The gym employee called for an ambulance, and, when it arrived, the woman told the medics that there were intruders in the Embassy killing people. Soon, the police rang the doorbell of the Embassy. The tall Asian man, now wearing a badge featuring the face of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s Great Leader, came out and told the police that there had been a misunderstanding. Later, an I.D. bearing the name Matthew Chao was found by the police.
It was a delicate time for relations between North Korea and the United States. In 2017, the two countries had seemed to be on the brink of war. Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued to antagonize the U.S. A month later, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. At Trump’s first address to the United Nations, he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” and called Kim Jong Un “rocket man.” But then Trump seemed to have a change of heart, and in June, 2018, he met Kim in Singapore.
The incident at the Madrid Embassy occurred five days before Trump and Kim met again, this time in Hanoi. At first, the Spanish paper El País connected the raid to the C.I.A. The next day, El Mundo reported that the South Korean government may also have been involved in the incident at the Embassy. Not long afterward, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, a “shadowy group” called Cheollima Civil Defense had raided the Embassy. Soon, a Spanish court identified the participants as citizens of the U.S., South Korea, and Mexico, and issued arrest warrants.
The story identified the leader of Cheollima Civil Defense as Adrian Hong. He was being hunted by the governments of Spain and North Korea, and it was unclear if the U.S. would attempt to find and extradite him.
Adrian Hong contacted me and told me the story of what had happened in Madrid, and about a secret network of what he called “freedom fighters,” including some within North Korea, who are trying to bring down Kim Jong Un’s government. Explaining why he had named the group Cheollima Civil Defense, Adrian likened it to the “righteous armies” throughout Korea’s thousands of years of history, “civilian militias who have mobilized spontaneously when government failed them.”
March 1, 2019, a week after the raid, was the centennial of the launch of Korea’s movement for independence from Japan, which occupied the country for thirty-five years. To mark the date, the C.C.D. renamed itself Free Joseon—for a Korean dynasty that lasted five hundred years, as well as what North Koreans call their country—and posted a video on its Web site announcing a government-in-exile for North Korea. The video was largely ignored by the media, but it was the first time that there had ever been an organized opposition to North Korea’s dictatorship.
Adrian told me that he, as “Matthew Chao,” and his companions had been let in by someone inside the Embassy. “It’s no longer trespassing if you are invited,” he said. Contrary to the speculations of the Spanish press, Free Joseon was not part of any government or intelligence service. “I have never worked for or been paid by or trained with or partnered with anyone at the C.I.A. or F.B.I.,” Adrian said. Free Joseon relied on resources that included “pro-bono labor, credit cards, and attempting things no government would risk,” Adrian told me. However, to set up a provisional government, the group also needed recognition. According to Adrian, “The plan was to have ambassadors and a cabinet in place.” He said that Free Joseon had initially received tacit support from members of the F.B.I. But then, he insisted, U.S. officials had turned on the group.
When he described Free Joseon’s goals for freeing North Koreans from persecution he was precise and single-minded. “[North Korea is] the worst place on earth, and a symbol of what man’s ingenuity and tenacity can achieve when organized for evil.”
“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”
“We are going to remove this regime,” he said. “We are going to confront it with force, with the strength of our ideas, and with our bodies until these people are free and can determine their own future.” The goal of his organization, he said, was “abolition.” How would he achieve that? “There is only one way,” he said. “It’s an uprising. It’s a revolution.”
Adrian Hong was born in 1984 in Tijuana, where his parents had immigrated from South Korea. His father was a Tae Kwon Do master who converted to Christianity and became a missionary. The family moved to San Diego when Adrian was six, but his father founded an orphanage in Mexico to which Adrian often returned, delivering donated supplies and helping to give aid to the homeless. Later, he conducted relief missions in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
According to those who knew Adrian at the time, his motivations seemed less religious than humanitarian. Adrian, like his father, taught Tae Kwon Do and is a practicing Christian, but, when I asked him about his faith, he said, “I make it a rule not to discuss personal beliefs. I am more concerned about freedom of belief.” Adrian admired people who effected great change; among them Martin Luther King, Jr. Adrian loved King’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, which tells us, when confronted with someone in need, to ask not “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
While attending Yale, Adrian became interested in the plight of North Koreans. In 2003, while visiting Los Angeles, Adrian, then a junior, was sitting with Paul (PK) Kim, a standup comic eight years older, at a café called Blink, on Wilshire Boulevard. They had met when Adrian invited PK to a campus event, and they often discussed starting an organization to help North Koreans. One of them looked up at the café’s sign, and decided to take the “B” out of the name and call the new group LINK—Liberty in North Korea. It was launched early the next year, at the Korean American Students Conference at Yale, which Adrian had organized.
Traveling to two or three college campuses a week, Adrian would give presentations about the horrors of life in North Korea, sometimes screening the documentary film “Seoul Train,” which follows defectors escaping to China. LINK was “ninety per cent Adrian,” PK told me. LINK sought out college students who, PK said, “need to be a part of something.” Adrian told me, “I built LINK on Xanga,” a blog-based social network then popular among Asian Americans, where he had been active since 1999.
Ki Hong Lee, a thirty-four-year-old Korean American actor who has appeared on the Netflix sitcom “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” met Adrian at an event in 2005, when Lee was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley. “If you spend three hours with Adrian, he makes you want to become a better person, do things you never thought about doing,” Lee told me. Lee helped start a chapter of LINK at Berkeley, and eventually he and Adrian traveled to South Korea to volunteer for an outreach program called Project Sunshine, which tried to raise awareness of the suffering of North Koreans. “You don’t really call someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what’s going on in the world that is messed up?’ ” Lee said. “He was that person I could do that with.”
Adrian dropped out of Yale in his senior year, and set up LINK’s ad-hoc headquarters in Manhattan’s Koreatown, before moving it to Washington, D.C. By then, there were nearly seventy local chapters. A close friend who helped get LINK off the ground told me, “Adrian knew that sometimes you have to work outside a diplomatic norm in order to reach something meaningful.”
In 2004, George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which made North Koreans broadly eligible for political asylum in the U.S. Two years later, Adrian and two other members of LINK traveled to Yanji, in northeast China, where they met four women and two teen-age boys who had escaped from North Korea and were hiding in an underground shelter. If the defectors were caught by Chinese authorities, they might be returned to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned in labor camps and risk execution. Adrian and the LINK workers accompanied them on a twenty-hour train ride to Shenyang, the site of the nearest U.S. consulate, to apply for asylum. But the consular officers turned them away, telling Adrian, over a phone line that had likely been tapped by the Chinese government, to go instead to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing, some four hundred miles away. Adrian got in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which also directed him to the U.N.H.C.R. Chinese police arrested everyone the LINK members were jailed for about a week before being deported; the North Koreans were detained for more than six months. After much pressure from LINK and other activist groups, the defectors were eventually freed and they flew to South Korea.
Adrian called the actions of the U.S. consulate “unacceptable and shameful.” In 2007, he wrote on the Web site Freekorea.us, “My experiences in December showed me that three years after the North Korean Human Rights Act has passed, nothing has changed on the ground for North Koreans.”
In 2008, Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy under Bush, says that Adrian was an “effective and ardent advocate.” By then, LINK had a hundred chapters worldwide.
Yet Adrian’s experience in China had shifted something in him; in 2008, he abruptly resigned from the group. According to a journalist who knew him at the time, Adrian appeared to be severing ties with his former life.
That year, Adrian started a think tank called the Joseon Institute, to generate a plan for a civil society in North Korea should the regime collapse. Between 2009 and 2012, Adrian served as a TED fellow; he also spent a year at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
Adrian found the world of N.G.O.s and advocacy groups unsatisfying. “We have all collectively accomplished almost nothing,” he told me. For years, the U.N.’s General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have voted to adopt resolutions condemning the human-rights violations of the North Korean regime. In 2014, U.N. investigators concluded, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
“Raising awareness through college lectures, tours, concerts, and bake sales wasn’t enough,” Adrian told me. “Rescuing refugees through the underground work in China and Southeast Asia wasn’t enough. Advocacy, trying to convince governments to change their policies to do the right thing, wasn’t enough. So then what was left was direct action.”
In 2010, Adrian started Cheollima Civil Defense (later renamed Free Joseon), but he did not make its existence known to the public. (“Cheollima” is the Korean equivalent of Pegasus, and during these years he listed his title as managing director of Pegasus Strategies L.L.C.)
In June, 2019, I flew to Europe to meet with members of Free Joseon. They explained that the group had hundreds of members, in ten countries. Adrian indicates there are thousands, in more than fifteen countries. Both numbers are impossible to verify, and the vagueness seems to be intentional. The group operates in a decentralized manner, so that, if one member is arrested, others won’t be jeopardized. The more I tried to follow Free Joseon, the more it became obvious that Adrian was the only person who really knew the extent of the group.
A Free Joseon member in the U.S. told me that he had been involved in several operations, all of them rescue missions involving élite defectors.
Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s former acting ambassador to Italy who disappeared in late 2018, is confirmed to be living in South Korea. He is quite possibly the top-ranked defector living in the county.
Local news media reported that Jo’s wife had asked the National Intelligence Service (NIS) for permission to return to the North, out of concern for the safety of her teenage daughter and her family. The NIS approved the request, but also made clear that “Jo and his wife voluntarily defected to the South.”
Free Joseon, a group opposed to the Kim Jong Un regime that claims to represent an alternative provisional government for North Korea, helped Jo and his wife find their way to South Korea. (The U.S.-based group, also called “Cheollima Civil Defense,” previously helped Kim Han Sol keep safe from his potential North Korean adversaries after his father, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in 2017. In a very murky incident, Free Joseon was also responsible for raiding the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.)
Jo hails from an elite family of orthodox diplomats. His father and father-in-law both served as ambassadors, according to South Korean news reports – the former as ambassador to Congo and Togo, and the latter as ambassador to Thailand and consul general to Hong Kong.
Thae Yong Ho who was deputy ambassador to London defected in 2016, and after arriving in the South became an outspoken critic of the North. In April, he was elected as a lawmaker with the conservative opposition. Previously, Thae had close relationships to the ultra-elite, having appeared in the public with Kim Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un’s brother, when the latter visited London, where he attended an Eric Clapton concert and visited guitar shops.
According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, six senior diplomats have defected to the South since the early 1990s. “As a member of the North Korean elite – by birth, education, and profession – Jo is privy to information that could be damaging to a totalitarian system. If more become outspoken like Thae Yong-ho, they could encourage further defections and undermine the Kim regime,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
So why do diplomats – part of a tiny minority of privileged North Koreans who are trusted to travel and even live overseas – defect from a country where they live at the top of the songbunsystem?
“The North Korean elite is not optimistic about the future of the North,” said Jo Dong-joon, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul University. “Since the late 1980s, the North Korean elite had already lost confidence.”
“Some do it for their family (especially children), some fear repression from the regime for one reason or another, and some probably very genuinely learn to detest the North Korean system and prefer to take their chances in a place more free,” said Mason Richey, an associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, in an email interview.
Two ballistic missiles made their debut in Saturday’s North Korean military parade: a sub-launched weapon and what appeared to be an enormous new intercontinental ballistic missile borne on a long, 11-axle mobile launcher.
Analysts have long scrutinized Pyongyang’s parades for what they reveal about the military capabilities of one of the world’s most secretive regimes — but the October 10 event also offered the latest and clearest signal yet that the Trump administration’s efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have failed. One expert called the new ICBM a destabilizing capability that would exacerbate tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, particularly the United States.
The new ICBM isn’t exactly a surprise, said Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and the founding publisher of the Arms Control Wonk blog. Lewis believes that the missile is intended to carry multiple warheads, another new capability. That means North Korea is improving the likelihood of slipping a nuclear weapon past the ground-based midcourse defense interceptors that the United States would deploy against an incoming ICBM. “It’s so much cheaper to add warheads than interceptors,” said Lewis.
He acknowledged that the missile hasn’t been flight-tested yet, so there’s no way to tell if it actually works. But it need not be 100-percent reliable to post a large threat that could change U.S. calculations. “We are standing by while they deploy very destabilizing capabilities,” he said.
Jo Song Gil and his wife disappeared in November 2018 after leaving the North Korean embassy in Rome where Jo was employed as acting-ambassador.
For almost two years, his whereabouts have been unknown — but this week, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung confirmed reports that Jo had defected to South Korea in 2019. “It is confirmed that former ambassador Jo Song Gil entered South Korea in July last year and is under government’s protection,” Ha wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday.
Jo is the highest-profile government official to defect from the totalitarian regime since Thae Yong-Ho, former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. North Korea has yet to comment publicly on the news of Jo’s defection.
Jo disappeared in November 2018, shortly before his term as North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy was set to expire. In a statement after the diplomat fled, the Italian Foreign Ministry said it had received a notice from the North Korean Embassy that Jo and his wife had left the embassy on November 10, 2018. Four days later, Jo’s daughter returned to North Korea accompanied by female staff from the North Korean embassy after requesting to be reunited with her grandparents, the Italian Foreign Ministry said.
A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Assembly Intelligence Committee chair Jeon Hae-cheol told CNN that the South Korean government didn’t make Jo’s defection public for more than a year out of concern for his family’s safety. Jo had voluntarily expressed his desire to come to South Korea, the spokesperson said.
For more than 240 days now, North Korea has kept its borders closed in a COVID-19-related lockdown, which has seriously driven down the number of new defectors entering South Korea.
But now, government data from Seoul shows a sudden surge in new defectors: After a stretch of record-low numbers totaling less than 10 people per month, 39 North Koreans abruptly arrived in South Korea in August 2020, Democratic Party lawmaker Jeon Hae-cheol’s office confirms.
This is a significant rise from the second quarter of 2020, when only twelve entered the South over the course of three months.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, offered a rare apology for the killing of a South Korean government official at sea by soldiers from the North.
“I am deeply sorry that an unexpected and unfortunate thing has happened in our territorial waters that delivered a big disappointment to President Moon Jae-in and the people of the South,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying in a message his government sent to the South on Friday.
Mr. Kim’s prompt apology to the South, the first issued in his name since he took power nearly a decade ago, appeared to have headed off what could have been another serious crisis in relations between the Koreas. South Koreans across the political spectrum had expressed outrage since Mr. Moon’s government announced the official’s killing on Thursday.
The official, whose name has not been released by the South but who worked for the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, went missing from his patrol vessel on Monday. He was shot and killed in North Korean waters on Tuesday, apparently while trying to defect, according to officials in the South. North Korean soldiers then poured oil on the man’s body and set it on fire for fear that he might have had the coronavirus, the officials said.
With all official channels of communication with the North having been cut off since June, South Korea sent a message through a cross-border telephone hotline between North Korea and the United Nations Command, demanding that the North explain why it had killed a South Korean citizen. In the message, North Korea denied that its soldiers had burned the body of the South Korean official, and it offered an account that differed from the South’s in other key details.
South Korean officials had said Thursday that they believed the man had been killed because of the North’s fear of the coronavirus. North Korea has kept its borders closed since January because of the pandemic. This month, Gen. Robert B. Abrams, commander of the United States military in South Korea, said the North had deployed troops along its border with China with shoot-to-kill orders, to keep smugglers from bringing in the coronavirus.
When Kim Jong Un announced last month that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea will convene for its eighth congress in January 2021, he also acknowledged that the regime’s current economic strategy is not working.
In one sense, this is a hopeful signal, given that such pragmatic admissions of failure are rare for North Korean leaders. But the announcement also underscored the depth of the country’s economic troubles. Of course, Kim does not have to worry about competing in elections. But like all dictators, he must still seek some level of buy-in from the population, and he has staked a great deal of credibility on his promises to improve North Koreans’ living standards.
First came the severe international sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korean tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s recent measures to protect the country from COVID-19, including a virtual closure of the border with China, have added to the damage. Just in the first half of this year, trade with China plummeted by 67% from the same period in 2019, after already having declined for some time.
North Korea also appears to be experiencing difficulties finishing important prestige construction projects, such as the new Pyongyang General Hospital. The regime will inevitably use the recent typhoons that hit the country as an excuse, but the fact is that several of these projects were already on track to be delayed. Kim Jong Un’s key initiatives, such as changes in agricultural management, seem to have slowed, stalled or paused. There have also been troubling signs of crackdowns against private markets and businesses in the past year or so.
Such ventures carry symbolic importance for propaganda purposes; they send a message to the population that the state is making progress to improve people’s everyday lives. Although the vast majority of North Koreans will never directly see these high-profile projects, the implication is that one day, they or their children may benefit from the fruits of the state’s caring investments.