The North Korean Embassy in Madrid was a soft target.
All it took was imitation handguns, fake business cards and some guile for a group of human rights activists to capture the embassy on the evening of Feb. 22. Over four hours, they took hostages, smashed photographs of the country’s late dictators and absconded with a stash of electronics and thumb drives.
They later escaped by masquerading as diplomats, driving away from the embassy in its own cars, flying North Korean flags.
The ringleader behind this audacious caper was Adrian Hong, 35, of Los Angeles, according to court documents.
One of the most celebrated advocates for human rights in North Korea, Hong was a fixture at congressional hearings. He traveled around the world giving lectures and penned impassioned op-eds. He wangled an invitation to a White House Christmas party, where he and his wife posed for a photo with then-President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
To Hong’s supporters, the incident at the North Korean Embassy was a natural extension of a lifetime’s work on behalf of oppressed North Koreans, a worthy cause taken perhaps too far. His lawyer described it as more of a stunt than an assault.
But the U.S. government isn’t seeing it that way.
Acting on an extradition request by the Spanish government, a U.S. magistrate last month issued a warrant for Hong’s arrest on charges of breaking and entering, robbery with violence and intimidation. Federal marshals raided Hong’s apartment in downtown Los Angeles on April 18. Although he wasn’t home, they arrested one of his alleged accomplices, a 38-year-old former Marine, Christopher Philip Ahn, who is being held without bail.
Hong is now a fugitive, being actively pursued by U.S. marshals.
“Armed and dangerous,” warns the wanted poster, below a photo of a man who looks more graduate student than gangster — with a receding hairline and close-cropped beard.
In the past, Hong was a darling of hard-liners within the U.S. government who supported a change of government in North Korea. On more than one occasion, he called on the State Department to intervene in diplomatically sensitive operations to bring North Korean defectors to safety.
The most dramatic was in 2017: After the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of current leader Kim Jong Un, Hong boasted on his website of helping to rescue Kim Jong Nam’s son Kim Han Sol. (Several people familiar with the case but not authorized to speak publicly about it substantiated the claim.)
Now, Hong’s supporters say that the Trump administration is throwing him under the bus for fear he might undermine the president’s outreach to North Korea. Not incidentally, the government might want to dispel any perception that it orchestrated the embassy takeover — which took place five days before a summit in Hanoi between Kim and President Trump.
“The State Department wants to send a message to the North Koreans that the U.S. government was not behind the Madrid incident … and that message has bloomed into a full-throttled effort to placate Kim Jong Un,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
One of the many curious aspects of the case is that Hong was the first to report his involvement in the Madrid incident. After flying back from Spain, he contacted the FBI, meeting with agents on Feb. 27 in New York to hand over the electronics taken from the embassy, according to court documents.
“He obviously is someone who likes to do the right thing by the U.S. government, as evidenced by the fact that he turned over the materials from the embassy within a couple of days of returning,” said Lee Wolosky, a New York lawyer representing Hong.
“It is extremely disappointing that the U.S. government would choose to enforce arrest warrants against U.S. persons based on accounts of North Korean witnesses who are not credible under the circumstances. It is unprecedented,” he added.
According to the complaint filed by Spanish authorities, Hong had first approached the embassy in early February, presenting a business card that identified him as Mathew Chao, a managing partner of Baron Stone Capital with offices in Toronto and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He claimed he wanted to set up a meeting about investing in North Korea.
When Hong returned to the embassy just past the 5 p.m. closing time, he was admitted into the gated compound by a gardener. Hong was instructed to wait on a bench, but instead he opened the gate to let in his accomplices, about eight people in all, according to a Spanish court order.
They were armed with crowbars, knives, tape and shackles and what the complaint alternately identified as “simulated firearms” and airsoft pistols. (Airsoft pistols shoot pellets and are used for paintball-type games.)
Exactly what happened during the four hours in the embassy is in some dispute. There were about seven North Koreans in the embassy at the time: diplomats, staff and their families. The Spanish complaint says that the activists beat and threatened the North Koreans, tying them up with shackles and covering their heads with plastic bags.
A video distributed by Hong’s group shows somebody removing photographs of past leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from the wall and jubilantly smashing them on the floor.
At one point, according to court records, they took the North Korean charge d’affaires to a basement room and tried to persuade him to defect, which he refused. His wife and 8-year-old son locked themselves in another room.
Meanwhile, the wife of another North Korean diplomat, hearing the commotion downstairs, escaped from the embassy by jumping from a second-floor terrace. She injured herself, but nonetheless was able to get help.
Spanish police arrived a short time later. According to the complaint, Hong answered the door, disguising himself as a diplomat by putting on a red lapel pin of Kim Il Sung’s portrait, required for all North Koreans.
He told the police there was “no problem inside the premises,” the complaint says.
By about 9 p.m., the activists cleared out. Most of them drove away in the North Korean Embassy’s official cars, including a Mercedes-Benz, which police later found nearby with its engine running and doors open. Hong called an Uber from an account he’d opened under the alias Oswaldo Trump, according to court documents.
Hong’s supporters say the North Korean staff had a motive to exaggerate the level of violence used so that they wouldn’t be punished back in Pyongyang for allowing the activists into the embassy.
"We were invited into the embassy, and contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten,” said a statement on the website of Free Joseon, an organization Hong founded. “Out of respect for the host nation of Spain, no weapons were used.”
Some of Hong’s old compatriots in the human rights struggle said they are not surprised that he turned rogue.
“He seemed to think North Korea will never change through naive human rights activism, that it was at a point where there needed to be a vigorous uprising,” said Kang Chol-hwan, a prominent North Korean defector and author based in Seoul. “He is a fighter type.”
Hong has a background steeped in martial arts and Christian activism. He was born in Mexico (and remains a Mexican citizen), the son of South Korean missionaries. His father was a noted taekwondo champion who set up a martial arts school in Tijuana, using its proceeds to fund his missions. A brilliant student, Hong graduated from high school in Chula Vista and went on to study at Yale.
While still an undergraduate, he cofounded Liberty in North Korea to generate sympathy among students for North Korea, which was emerging from a famine in which up to 10% of the population perished. LiNK, as it is known, quickly spread to other Ivy League campuses and eventually opened 70 chapters.
“There are 20 million people in North Korea. Most people didn’t really care and that’s what really lit a fire under him,” said Paul “PK” Kim, a Los Angeles comedian and cofounder of LiNK, who recalls dreaming up the idea during long conversations at a Koreatown cafe and in Hong’s dorm at Yale.
After graduating from Yale, Hong started working in northeastern China along the 800-mile border with North Korea, dangerous terrain frequented by spies, smugglers and defectors.
In 2006, Hong led a successful mission to rescue three half-starved teenagers hiding in the Chinese city of Yanji. In a memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America,” Joseph Kim wrote about how Hong took them to a mall to buy them clothes that made them look like hip-hop teenagers: T-shirts, hipster pants, baseball caps turned sideways.
Then, pretending the refugees were Korean American students on a Chinese adventure, Hong escorted them into a U.S. Consulate in Shenyang, where they eventually won asylum in the United States.
Later that same year, another rescue went spectacularly bust. The U.S. Consulate in Shenyang refused to accept six North Koreans Hong delivered to their doorstep. Chinese authorities — who consider transporting refugees a crime — arrested Hong and two American women working with him. They were deported after only one week, but the incident led to a crackdown on safe houses and charities throughout China.
“It wreaked havoc in northeastern China. A whole dragnet came down on the people who were trying to help North Korean refugees,” said Tim Peters, a Seoul-based pastor who works with refugees. “Adrian hadn’t thought through things clearly.”
The debacle in China strained Hong’s relationship with other activists, who thought he’d been too reckless and self-aggrandizing. In 2008, he left LiNK, the organization he co-founded. (The Long Beach-based organization says it has no association with Hong currently.)
No longer would Hong content himself with rescuing North Korean refugees: He had a more ambitious goal — the overthrow of the North Korean government.
He traveled to Libya in 2012 to organize a TEDX conference to discuss the Arab Spring uprisings.
“He was inspired by the Libyan revolution. He saw many parallels between the repressive regime of [Moammar] Kadafi and North Korea,’’ said Mustafa Abushagur, a former deputy prime minister of Libya who was so impressed with Hong that he agreed to serve on the advisory board of Hong’s organization. “He was hoping his people would revolt.”
Hoping to foment the revolution, Hong met with everybody of possible usefulness — defectors, government officials, academics and wealthy conservatives. He tried to enlist Kim Jong Nam, the half brother later assassinated. He told them he was setting up a provisional exile government, soliciting their help and sometimes offering ministerial positions.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar based in Seoul, said that Hong used to hint that he had powerful backers, perhaps the U.S. government, although many doubted it.
“I didn’t take it seriously. It sounded too bizarre,” said Lankov.
The Madrid incident marked a significant escalation of anything Hong did before, and one that struck a nerve in Pyongyang.
The North Koreans have been stung by the defection of several of their diplomats posted in Europe. And destroying the portraits is tantamount to blasphemy in the political system that reveres the Kim dynasty as sacred.
North Korea is forgoing the diplomatic privilege accorded to embassies that shields them from a host country's criminal justice system. Having no diplomatic relationship with the United States, it has turned the investigation over to Spain, a U.S. ally with an extradition treaty.
In a rare public acknowledgement of the incident, the official Korean Central News Agency in March quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokeswoman as saying Pyongyang expected the Spanish government to “bring the terrorists and their wire-pullers to justice in conformity with the relevant international law.”
So far the only suspect arrested has been Ahn, a Chino Hills resident who served in Iraq. Another U.S. citizen who remains at large is identified as Sam Ryu, 29, who is said to live in the San Diego area. The other suspects are South Korean nationals, including one who defected from North Korea.
In the tight-knit community of North Korea specialists, Hong has become a polarizing figure. His defenders argue that he has done more good than harm, not only rescuing defectors but also uncovering financial skulduggery by Pyongyang. The hard disks he turned over to the FBI are hoped to hold a trove of information about how North Korea launders money and illegally procures the components for its nuclear weapons program, according to several North Korea analysts.
“I’m not condoning incursions inside diplomatic missions, but I can understand as someone in the field of human rights how he got frustrated and made the transition to doing something more militant,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Lankov, however, retorts: “The last time I checked, an attack on a diplomatic mission was called terrorism. It was brutal, stupid, immoral and counterproductive.”