Jail time for helping North Korean defectors? Meet the man who’s facing it
Christopher Ahn, a volunteer for the Cheollima Civil Defense, has been arrested after what was meant to be a rescue mission in Madrid was perceived by Spanish authorities as an attempted kidnapping. Los Angeles-born Ahn had joined the Cheollima group to help North Korean defectors escape the authoritarian regime. Yet, a mission which was meant to take only minutes has left Ahn in undeniable danger.
Originally, the Cheollima Civil Defense group’s plan was to help a North Korean diplomat, Yun Suk So, escape by staging a faux kidnapping at the North Korean embassy in Madrid. By having North Korean authorities believe it was a forced kidnapping, Yun Suk So’s family would be able to avoid dire consequences.
According to refugees who escaped North Korea, those who are defectors are labeled as “traitors”, and their family back in North Korea must face three generations being forced into internment camps if they’re caught escaping. Therefore, a staged kidnapping seemed the safest way to free Yun Suk So.
The escape mission in Spain
Before this mission in Madrid, Ahn only worked on lower-stake rescues. He would greet North Korean defectors at international airports and help buy them tickets for a safer country where they could seek asylum. Ahn stated: “People say we’re the Underground Railroad, but it was really just me buying tickets with my credit card on Expedia.”
When the Cheollima group’s founder Adrian Hong asked Ahn if he could assist in their latest mission, Ahn set for Madrid knowing nothing of the plan ahead.
The group had believed the mission to be relatively simple. They were meant to “kidnap” So, his wife, and son and take them to their designated AirBnb before taking them to freedom. The group purchased handcuffs and fake firearms while also bringing along candy for So’s young son.
Where it went wrong
However, once the group had “taken control” of the North Korean embassy, an unexpected leak had alerted authorities that the embassy was under an actual attack. Suddenly, fearing the worst, So had changed his mind on his attempted escape. He told the group to leave immediately and that he no longer wanted to risk his life.
After the group had left the failed mission, they were unaware that the Spanish authorities had identified the members and had even gathered testimonies from the North Korean diplomats. The diplomats, who were in fear of being persecuted by North Korean authorities, told Spanish prosecutors that the Cheollima members had beaten them.
So had also reported that the members had raided the embassy and attempted to persuade the diplomats to defect. Ahn has stated that this is all entirely untrue but understands the diplomats felt pressured to show they were attacked in order to avoid retribution form the government in North Korea.
Several weeks later, back in Los Angeles, Ahn was greeted by the FBI at his home. Ahn had told them the details of the failed mission over tea. These agents were previously in contact with the Cheollima group, so Ahn claimed he believed they just needed intelligence information. The meeting ended with the agents informing Ahn that he was in danger of assassination by the North Korean government.
Only days later, Ahn was arrested by U.S. Marshals. Ahn said: “I wasn’t worried at first. I kept saying, ‘can somebody please call the FBI or State Department to clear this up. There’s obviously been a mistake.’”
Now, what was a rescue mission is being perceived by authorities as an actual attack on a North Korean embassy. “I thought I’d be home for dinner,” he said. Instead, Ahn was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he spent three months.
By the end of March, the Spanish court removed a secrecy order on the case, exposing that the FBI had been working with the Spanish investigation and had informed them that Hong had given them embassy material.
The judge granted Ahn bail despite the opposition of the U.S. Department of Justice, deciding the evidence against Ahn coming from a country which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the U.S. Ahn’s bail was posted at $1.3 million, prompting his family to sell everything they had. He was also ordered to have absolutely no contact with Hong and his fellow Cheollima members.
Cheollima’s work to help North Korean defectors
Ahn clarified that the Cheollima group isn’t some team of militant extremists – he told Buzzfeed they’re a group of young Americans who want to help North Korean defectors find a better life. “They’re good kids who listened to their parents, got good grades, good jobs and followed the rules,” Ahn said. “They’re people who believe individuals can get together and make a difference in the world… It’s not #idealism, it’s real.”
On March 1st, 2019, Hong renamed Cheollima as Free Joseon. Hong said that “tens of millions of our fellow Koreans remain enslaved by a depraved power ruled by a corrupt few made wealthy by the toils of many.” Free Joseon hopes to aid those stuck within the Kim regime.
Christopher Ahn’s life now
For nearly two years, Ahn was under full house arrest where he couldn’t go past his front door. He had to put his entire life on hold. He and his wife have decided to wait to start having children until the situation has been resolved.
Late last year, the judge altered his bail so that he could travel within 8 am to 8 pm, which allows him to take care of his ill mother & grandmother at their home nearby.
Ahn stated that he has no regrets about the mission in Madrid. Ahn has said “I try not to feel bitter. What it comes down to is if someone asks for help and I have the capability of helping, then I don’t want to be the type of guy who says no.”