A dissident group plotting to overthrow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has appealed to the media not to expose its members’ identities and compromise their safety, citing the regime’s “death squads” who would boldly carry out assassinations even on foreign soil.
Cheollima Civil Defense, said to be behind a raid on Pyongyang’s embassy in Madrid on February 22, on Sunday issued a statement on its website emphasising the need to remain anonymous. Several members had already escaped threats to their lives, and if their identities were made known, their less lucky friends and relatives in concentration camps in North Korea would face execution, the group said.
“The Pyongyang regime does not respect the rights of its people to speak about or challenge its rule,” the statement read. “Even beyond its borders, it will use assassinations, terrorism, and even weapons of mass destruction, to destroy any who might oppose or challenge their monopoly on power.”
The group also advertised that it would sell 200,000 “visas” using the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrency to visit Free Joseon – the name the movement plans to give North Korea upon its liberation. The visas are expected to go on sale on the website from Sunday, March 24, at a price of one unit of Ethereum digital currency per 1,000 visas.
Ethereum was trading around US$137 per unit on Tuesday.
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Cheollima, which also goes by the name Free Joseon itself, first rose to prominence in 2017 for spiriting Kim Han-sol – the son of Kim Jong-nam who was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur, purportedly by North Korean agents – away from Macau. In a video that appeared after his extraction, the 23-year-old said he was with his mother and sister in a safe location.
On March 1, the day Koreans marked the centenary of the first mass movement against Japanese colonisation and a day after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s failed summit on denuclearisation with United States President Donald Trump, the shadowy group released a video on their website.
The video, featuring a woman wearing a traditional hanbok dress while standing under a pagoda in what appeared to be a South Korean city, declared the group the sole legitimate representative of the North Korean people and vowed to free them from the yoke of Kim Jong-un.
THE SPANISH ATTACK
Last Friday, The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, attributed a break-in into Madrid’s North Korean embassy to the group. Ten masked intruders reportedly carrying fake weapons tied up and put hoods on eight staff and held them hostage for two hours until they made off with computers and mobile phones.
Cheollima has not directly taken responsibility for the incident, although several days after it happened it posted a message on its website saying it had recently been asked for help by “comrades in a certain Western country” and would respond.
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This was followed by a March 11 statement in which it claimed responsibility for graffiti at the North Korean embassy in the Malaysian capital which appeared hours before two women were due to go on trial for Kim Jong-nam’s murder on February 13, 2017. On March 11, an Indonesian woman accused of the murder was unexpectedly released from custody after Malaysian prosecutors dropped the charges, while a Vietnamese woman is still awaiting trial.
Experts say the Madrid burglary, if confirmed as the work of Cheollima, would mark the dissident group as potentially the most organised and audacious opposition to emerge against the Kim dynasty in seven decades.
“Those computers and phones will contain contacts to recruit and exploit, emails to read and post online, and bank accounts to drain,” wrote Washington-based lawyer Joshua Stanton, who helped the US House of Representatives draft sanctions against Pyongyang, on his blog One Free Korea on Monday.
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“Documents Cheollima posts online could be immensely embarrassing – and potentially, incriminating – to its bankers, business partners, spies, and sympathisers. They could provide invaluable leads for law enforcement.”
Spanish newspaper El País reported that authorities who analysed video footage, spoke with hostages and checked the embassy vehicles used by the intruders to escape were able to identify some of them.
Most were Korean, but at least two were recognised by the Spanish intelligence services for their ties to the CIA, the American intelligence agency, the newspaper reported.
The evidence pointing to US involvement – likely in cooperation with South Korea – was considered so strong that Spanish authorities contacted the CIA, which issued an “unconvincing” denial, according to Spanish government sources quoted by the daily.
It is unlikely the involvement of the CIA could be proven in court, the article said, and The Washington Post reported the raid had been carried out without the help of any foreign government.
Gathering information about former ambassador Kim Hyok-chol has been cited as a possible motive for the raid.
He was declared persona non grata and expelled from Spain in September 2017 after the North carried out repeated nuclear tests in violation of UN resolutions, and is now one of the North Korean leader’s most trusted aides.
During the burglary, the diplomat responsible for running the embassy since the ambassador’s departure was taken aside by one of the assailants, who asked to be addressed as “the businessman”.
El País reported that the intruder took the diplomat to a private room. It remains unclear what happened next, but Spanish media have speculated that the diplomat may have been pressured to reveal information about the former ambassador, with whom he worked closely from 2014 to 2017.
Kim Hyok-chol led the North Korean delegation in nuclear disarmament talks with US special envoy Stephen Biegun and was one of the architects of the failed Trump-Kim summit last month.
WHO IS CHEOLLIMA?
Little is known about Cheollima Civil Defense but experts agree it is the first time organised opposition against the Kim dynasty has emerged.
Defectors’ organisations outside the country had largely confined their opposition to information dissemination campaigns that involved sending leaflets and USB drives into the country by sea or air.
On Cheollima, Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: “It seems to be well organised, it clearly identifies itself with the North Koreans, it has a number of noteworthy actions on its resume. This is to my knowledge the first serious government in exile.”
In recent years, reports of isolated acts of resistance have leaked out of North Korea despite the unmatched control the regime’s security apparatus has over its citizens. Its ability to stop leaks to the outside world has in part been reduced by the rise of black markets that have reduced the population’s reliance on state rations.
Last week, the Daily NK, a defector-run media outlet based in Seoul with sources inside North Korea, reported that a 100-year-old woman had complicated efforts by state media to make a documentary when she failed to credit the “loving care” of the Kims for her longevity.
Cheollima has it made it clear that one of its aims is to inspire internal resistance, calling on North Koreans to “defy your oppressors” and “challenge them openly or resist them quietly”.
Ken Eom, a former North Korean military officer who defected to the South in 2010, is hopeful the movement can spark a resistance but is cautious in his expectations.
“In North Korea, there are some resistance movements but they cannot change the regime, I think, because there is too much surveillance by groups such as police, the national security agency and even the party members’ reporting body, which makes it almost impossible to organise a movement.”