It was an unusual sight in the normally quiet streets of the wealthy Valdermarín neighbourhood on the edge of Madrid: an Asian woman, badly injured, stumbling down the pavement pleading for help.
An ambulance and the police arrived quickly but the story would only emerge after officers found someone to translate the frightened woman’s words.
Cho Sun Hi’s tale was incredible. She had been in the nearby North Korean embassy, where she lived with her husband, when a band of commandos broke in and began to beat residents. She had managed to lock herself into an upstairs room, tumble from the balcony, and run on to the street.
When three policemen rang at the embassy, however, the man who answered the door wearing a Kim Jong Un lapel pin insisted there was no problem inside. The officers paused. Entering an embassy required consent from the head of mission and none was forthcoming. They stepped back to observe from a distance.
But the man was not the high-ranking embassy authority he claimed to be. He was Adrian Hong Chang, a well-known North Korean human rights activist whose associates say has links to US intelligence agencies.
The February raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid — and a Spanish court report on the raid released this week — shed light on a shadowy world of freelance activists working to bring down the North Korean regime, and on their possible ties with foreign intelligence agencies.
The Madrid raid may offer parallels to The Italian Job in its brazen theatricality, but its staging in the days before the failed nuclear summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Hanoi underlines the delicate geopolitical balance that such events can upend.
Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the UK, wrote in an online column that Pyongyang’s silence over the incident could be attributed to the likely theft of a computer used for deciphering information shared between Pyongyang and the embassy. The device, Mr Thae said, was seen as “more important than human lives”.
The Spanish court report, released by judge José de la Mata, tells the madcap tale of 10 assailants who entered the embassy on February 22 and held staff hostage for almost five hours while they stole electronic devices before fleeing to Portugal and then, in several cases, to the US.
The report names Mr Hong, a 35-year-old Mexican citizen living in the US, as the group’s leader and said he contacted the FBI days later to offer “audiovisual” information supposedly gathered on the mission. It also identified as assailants Sam Ryu, a naturalised American born in South Korea, and Woo Ram Lee, a South Korean national. International arrest warrants for Mr Hong and Mr Ryu, who are believed to be in the US, have been issued.
The story told by Mr de la Mata begins two weeks before the attack, when Mr Hong visited the embassy as Matthew Chao — the managing partner of a fictitious business named Baron Stone Capital — and briefly spoke with the chargé d’affaires, Yun Sok So, about investing in North Korea.
In the following days, the gang bought crowbars, fake pistols, combat knives, balaclavas, a 3.8-meter telescopic ladder and rolls of tape.
And then, at 5pm on February 22, Mr Hong rang the embassy door. It was Mr Chao to speak with Mr So again, he told an embassy worker, who asked him to wait on an interior patio bench.
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