Analysis: Who was behind the raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid?

North Korea SpainAn obscure North Korean dissident group was most likely behind a violent raid on North Korea’s embassy in Madrid on February 22, which some reports have pinned on Western spy agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency. The group, known as the Cheollima Civil Defense, is believed to be the first North Korean resistance organization to declare war on the government of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.


The attack took place at 3:00 in the afternoon local time in Aravaca, a leafy residential district of northern Madrid, where the embassy of North Korea is located. Ten assailants, all Southeast Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff, as well as three North Korean architects who were visiting the facility at the time. But one staff member hid at the embassy. She eventually managed to escape from a second-floor window and reach an adjacent building that houses a nursing home. Nursing home staff called the police, who arrived at the scene but had no jurisdiction to enter the embassy grounds, since the premises are technically North Korean soil. When police officers rang the embassy’s doorbell, an Asian-looking man appeared at the door and Q Quote 1said in English that all was fine inside the embassy. But a few minutes later, two luxury cars belonging to the North Korean embassy sped away from the building with the ten assailants inside, including the man who had earlier appeared at the front door.

Once they entered the embassy, Spanish police found eight men and women tied up, with bags over their heads. Several had been severely beaten and at least two had to be hospitalized. The victims told police that the assailants were all Korean, spoke Korean fluently, and had kept them hostage for nearly four hours. But they refused to file formal police complaints. The two diplomatic cars were later found abandoned at a nearby street. No money was taken by the assailants, nor did they seem interested in valuables of any kind. But they reportedly took with them an unknown number of computer hard drives and cell phones belonging to the embassy staff. They also stole an unknown quantity of diplomatic documents, according to reports.


Within a few hours, Spanish police had reportedly ruled out the possibility that the assailants were common thieves, arguing that the attack had been meticulously planned and executed. Also, common thieves would have looked for valuables and would not have stayed inside the embassy for four hours. Within a week, several Spanish newspapers, including the highly respected Madrid daily El País and the Barcelona-based El Periodico, pinned the raid on Western intelligence services. They cited unnamed police sources who claimed that at least two of the assailants had been identified and found to have links with the CIA. The reports also cited claims by embassy employees that the attackers interrogated them extensively about Soh Yun-sok, North Korea’s former ambassador to Madrid. Soh became Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator after he was expelled by the Spanish government in 2017 in protest against North Korea’s nuclear missile tests.

But this explanation seems highly implausible. There is indeed a history of embassy break-ins by the CIA. These are usually carried out to search for highly sought-after classified documents or to install surveillance equipment. But such extremely high-risk operations are relatively rare and have historically been conducted under the cover of night, with the aim of avoiding run-ins with embassy staff. It is highly unlikely that the CIA has as many as ten Korean-looking and -speaking operations officers at its disposal. Even if that were the case, putting them in harm’s way in broad daylight inside a building that is technically North Korean soil, where they could possibly be killed, or captured and paraded before the world’s media, would be highly unlikely. It would be equally Q Quote 2unlikely for the CIA to carry out an authorized raid of this kind at the time when it took place —just days before the high-level summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in Vietnam. Had a CIA link to the raid been revealed at that critical moment, it would have completely derailed the meeting and risked a violent retaliation from Pyongyang.

Another possibility, which has been entertained by some observers, is that the raid could have been carried out by the South Korean government. There is certainly a long history of tit-for-tat violence between the North Korean and South Korean spy services. However, the government of President Moon Jae-in is arguably South Korea’s most liberal and pro-unification administration in living memory. It would never have authorized such a brazen and potentially reckless raid, which could have derailed the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. The raid could have been carried out by rogue elements within the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) with the intent of sabotaging the rapprochement between North and South Korea. But that is highly unlikely, given that Moon has effectively taken personal control of the NIS since his election in 2017, and has even imprisoned several senior NIS officials who were found to have tried to sabotage his election campaign.


This leaves only two plausible explanations. One of them is that the raid was part of an internal dispute between criminal elements within the North Korean diplomatic establishment. Many North Korean observers, including the present author, have written extensively about the criminal enterprise that is North Korea’s diplomatic community. The majority of North Korea’s embassies around the world are known to be hubs of illicit activity. The latter is carried out by embassy employees who use their diplomatic immunity to smuggle narcotics, arms, forged currency, and other contraband, in return for foreign currency. Much of that is shared with the North Korean government, while smaller amounts are used by the diplomats themselves in lieu of wages —as they do Q Quote 3not generally get paid by the North Korean government. It is thus not at all unlikely that rival factions within the North Korean diplomatic establishment are engaged in an internal civil war, of which last month’s raid may have been a small part. Or it could be that the raiders were sent by the government in Pyongyang to punish the diplomats in Madrid for refusing orders, keeping too much foreign currency for themselves, planning to defect, or a myriad of other reasons.

But arguably the most plausible answer to the question of who were the culprits of the February 22 raid was given by The Washington Post last Friday. The paper claimed that an obscure North Korean dissident group, calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense —also known as Free Joseon— was behind the attack. The group made its first notable public appearance in March of 2017, when it provided protection for Kim Han Sol, son of Supreme Leader Kim’s murdered half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. The late Kim, who criticized his half-brother’s policies, lived in exile in Macau until he was assassinated by Pyongyang in February 2017 while traveling in Malaysia. Following Kim’s assassination, many believed that his two children and wife would be next. Cheollima Civil Defense, whose members support on principle anyone who challenges the regime in Pyongyang, helped Kim’s family relocate to the West, allegedly with assistance from China, the United States and Holland. Since that time, the group has issued an online call to action, in which it urges North Koreans all over the world to challenge the regime. The secretive group also says that it has formed a provisional government that stands ready to replace the current administration in North Korea “when it falls”.

The Washington Post states —correctly— that Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first known active resistance movement in living memory. The paper adds that the group has not officially claimed responsibility for the raid on the embassy in Madrid, but that it has spoken to “people familiar with the incident” who confirmed the story. The Post’s sources also note that the raid was not Q Quote 4carried out “in coordination with any governments”, and that the group would be making “an important announcement” soon. There are also rumors that a video recording of the raid, taken by the assailants themselves, will eventually be made public by the group.


Does this mean that the reports in the Spanish media about a possible CIA connection to the raid are to be dismissed? The answer is yes. It is unlikely that the CIA —or any other intelligence agency— had any role in the raid. But this does not mean that the Spanish police reports about possible links between some of the raiders and the CIA are erroneous. Given that Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first domestic resistance group, and that it appears to have a significant network of international operatives, it is unthinkable that the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies will not have made contact with its leadership. It is almost certain that several intelligence agencies are helping fund and train the group, whose members are seen as useful in providing insights about life in a country that constitutes a ‘black hole’ for intelligence collectors. That would explain the professionalism of the February 22 raid in Spain. But it does not follow from this that the specific attack against the North Korean embassy in Madrid was ordered or assisted by the CIA, or any other intelligence agency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 March 2019 | Permalink

5 Responses to Analysis: Who was behind the raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid?

  1. For the record, this hitherto obscure organisation apparently changed its name from the Cheollima Civil Defence to Free Joseon at the beginning of this month. However, they have not updated their website at The site contains some stark advice to the free press about what should and should not be published about them given the brutality of what the US President calls the DPRK’s “talented” and “great leader”. Why they chose Free Joseon as their name seems to be seeped in ambiguity!

  2. Anonymous says:

    A guess that it may be a South Korean organized crime group who could then sell the data on the
    “computer hard drives and cell phones” to South Korean intelligence. The organized crime group might also sell copies of the data to the 3 largest intelligence powers (ie. the US, Russia and China).

  3. Be interesting to know if any encryption devices or code material were taken.

  4. Shronk says:

    The Embassy is not “technically North Korean soil”. Embassies do not have an extraterritorial status. They just have special privileges under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations thus making it illegal for the police etc. to enter.

  5. Abby says:

    Shronk is playing with words. Even if the embassy is not technically North Korean soil, you don’t want to have your people arrested inside a space where the Spanish or other Western government has no jurisdiction. See Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London or Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul.

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