Clad head to toe in black with a bushy beard and dark shades, Christopher Philip Ahn cut an imposing, hulking figure on the stoop of the North Korean embassy in Madrid.
The barrel-chested 38-year-old former U.S. Marine, a resident of Chino Hills, was caught on surveillance camera footage in February in the moments before he and others allegedly launched a brazen raid on the embassy that has become the center of international intrigue and a potential thorn in efforts at diplomacy with the North Korean regime.
The attackers, associated with a North Korean dissident group calling itself Free Joseon, stand accused of having held embassy staff captive for hours while trying to persuade a diplomat to defect and eventually taking off with a stash of computers and hard drives.
Those allegedly involved in the raid, about 10 people including Ahn and a second U.S. citizen as well as South Korean nationals, all immediately fled Spain. Ahn was arrested in April in Los Angeles by U.S. authorities acting on an extradition request from a Spanish judge, and remains the only suspect in the attack to be taken into custody.
Now attorneys for Ahn are making the case before a federal judge in Los Angeles that he is a devoted family man who is not a danger or a flight risk but faces “possibly fatal” retaliation from North Korea should he be deported to Spain.
In court papers filed Thursday requesting that Ahn be released on bail, attorneys cited the fact that Ahn was previously involved in the extraction of Kim Han Sol, son of Kim Jong Un’s older brother Kim Jong Nam, after his father was dramatically assassinated by VX nerve agent. Ahn’s life could be in jeopardy in Spain, which maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea and issues visas allowing certain North Koreans to enter the country, they contended.
“North Korea has every incentive to either capture and torture Mr. Ahn to extract information regarding Kim Han Sol’s whereabouts, or to simply murder him as retribution for embarrassing the regime,” attorney Naeun Rim wrote in the filing.
An official at the national court where the case was filed in Madrid said Friday that “there is no more information” available about what sort of protection would be available to Ahn. The official declined to give his name, saying he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Prosecutors in Spain have asked the U.S. to extradite Ahn to face charges including unlawful break-in, illegal detention, willful bodily harm and theft that could result in a prison sentence of more than 10 years. Spanish authorities said Ahn and others violently assaulted and physically restrained embassy staff and family members, including a child, using “knives, machetes, iron bars, imitation handguns, shackles and cables.”
Some supporters have contended the attack was not a crime as alleged by Spain but an act of political defiance, and that the U.S. was only going along with cracking down on those involved in the attack to placate the North Korean regime so as to not derail President Trump’s nuclear talks with Kim Jong Un.
North Korea, for its part, has called the incident a “grave terrorist attack” that constituted “a grave breach of the state sovereignty and a flagrant violation of international law.” A foreign ministry official urged Spain in a March statement published in state media to “bring the terrorists and their wire-pullers to justice in conformity with the relevant international law.”
The ringleader behind the raid, longtime North Korean human rights activist Adrian Hong, voluntarily met with the FBI in New York, shortly after returning from Spain and handed over the electronics taken by the group, according to court documents.
It was more than a month later that Ahn was arrested during a raid of Hong’s apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Hong remains at large, with a warrant for his arrest.
In this week’s court files, Ahn’s attorneys described him as an upstanding veteran and community member who could not have personally carried out any violent assault because his right hand was fractured at the time. They also said his time in the Marines wasn’t what it was made out to be in the news media following his arrest.
“Mr. Ahn was no grizzled front-line combatant: During his time as a Marine, he primarily held a desk-bound intelligence job and received no special combat instruction outside of basic training,” they wrote in the filing.
The filing also included more than 20 letters from family and friends who described him as a dedicated son and husband caring for an ailing mother with deep roots in Southern California. Ahn’s attorneys enlisted the support of Korean American community groups including the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.
“The regime has every incentive to level false accusations against those who work to help North Koreans escape tyranny and violence, in order to deter them from continuing such efforts,” the community groups wrote in a joint letter. “We do not believe that Mr. Ahn — or any American citizen — should be detained based on such accusations, nor should they be extradited to a country in which they may be exposed to violent reprisal by the regime.”
Free Joseon, the secretive group that claims to be a provisional government in exile for the North Korean regime, has also called for Ahn’s release on its website, posting a photo of Ahn with Kim Han Sol.
“Adrian Hong and Christopher Ahn are true heroes who took great risks and have made many other personal sacrifices for many years to help and rescue those not blessed with freedom,” the group said in a statement last week.
Hong and Ahn “have never received funding from foreign government agencies,” the group said, countering speculation that U.S. intelligence agencies may have been involved in the attack.
Ahn’s bail hearing is scheduled for June 18.