North Korea embassy raid group promises 'bigger things ahead'


Seoul (AFP)

A shadowy dissident group allegedly behind last month's raid on North Korea's embassy in Madrid promised "bigger things ahead" on Thursday, but said they would temporarily suspend operations because of intense media scrutiny.

The Cheollima Civil Defense (CCD) group emerged from the shadows this week to claim responsibility for a commando-style raid on Pyongyang's embassy to highlight illicit activities rampant in North Korea's foreign missions.

On Wednesday a Spanish court named Adrian Hong Chang, a Mexican national, as being the leader of the group which burst into the diplomatic mission and roughed up employees before fleeing with documents and computers.

"We are a group of defectors who have come together with compatriots around the world," the CCD said in a statement posted on its website.

Various preparations to "shake the Kim Jong Un regime by the root" were underway, it added, but had been hampered by a spike in media interest.

"The activities of the members have been temporarily suspended," it said, adding: "The media should refrain from sticking their nose in the nature of our group and our members. We have bigger things ahead of us."

The statement did not offer any clues about where the group was located, but said it was not collaborating with defectors in South Korea due to "strict security reasons".

Thursday's statement was the first time the CCD had offered information on its membership since its emergence in 2017, when it posted an online video of the son of the North Korean leader's assassinated brother, saying it had guaranteed his safety.

Analysts said the current media exposure could be both good and bad for the group's future activities.

"They can receive international support from anti-Pyongyang forces so it has created an atmosphere for them to do more open, public campaigning," said An Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher in Seoul.

But Shin Beom-cheol, a researcher at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said the group now faced possible reprisals from Pyongyang.

"If they set up an office in Southeast Asia or the US, it could in turn face an attack from North Korea," he said.

Park Sang-hak, a North Korean defector and activist based in Seoul who claims knowledge of CCD, told AFP most of its members were defectors settled in the US as American citizens.

Kim Han Sol, the son of Kim's assassinated brother, was one of its key members and believed to be living in the US under the protection of the FBI, he added.

Its alleged leader Hong Chang, who goes by the name Adrian Hong in the United States, was a well-educated longtime human rights activist, said Park.

In December 2006 he was arrested together with two other people in China as they tried to help six North Koreans escape, but was released 10 days later.

"He is very decisive and driven, always putting ideas into practice," said Park.

Hong Chang later set up a consultancy firm called Pegasus Strategies LLC, describing it as "an initiative that uses cutting-edge technology to penetrate closed societies and empower people in those nations".

Its name suggests a link between Hong Chang and the CCD as Cheollima is a powerful stallion in east Asian folklore -- a direct parallel to Pegasus in Greek mythology.

Last month the group declared itself a government-in-exile for the North called "Free Joseon", using an old name for Korea.

In the past, the group has said it responded to requests for protection from "compatriots" and thanked countries including the Netherlands, China and the United States for their help.

It has also said it was "not seeking anything in return" and that it has "already given help" to North Koreans.