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North Korean Embassy Attack Suspects Fled To U.S., Spanish Court Says

A break-in occurred at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid on Feb. 22, Spanish authorities say. A judge now says the assailants flew via Portugal to the U.S.
Manu Fernandez
A break-in occurred at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid on Feb. 22, Spanish authorities say. A judge now says the assailants flew via Portugal to the U.S.

Updated at 7:45 p.m. ET

A Spanish court says assailants who broke into North Korea's Embassy in Madrid last month later fled to the U.S.

According to new documentsunsealed on Tuesday, the perpetrators of the attack included a U.S. citizen and another resident. The leader of the plot fled via Lisbon to Newark, N.J., and offered stolen material to the FBI in New York.

"We have no comment," Martin Feely, a spokesman for the FBI's New York field office, told NPR in an email.

Spain's Embassy in Washington, D.C., also declined to comment. "There is a judicial procedure underway," an embassy spokesperson said.

Late Tuesday, a Web site apparently associated with a secretive North Korean dissident movement called "Free Joseon" published a statement claiming the group carried out an operation at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. But the group denied it was an attack and refuted much of the Spanish court's account.

The Madrid incident occurred on Feb. 22, just days before the second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam. That summit ended in a stalemate after the U.S. and North Korea could not agree on a deal.

The Spanish judge in the newly unsealed case, Judge José de la Mata, says 10 individuals — whom he refers to as a "criminal organization" — were involved in crimes including falsified documents, illegal detention and injuries. The court statement identifies the suspected leader of the group as A. Hong Chang, a Mexican citizen and U.S. resident. (Some reports have named that person as Adrian Hong Chang.) The documents also say a U.S. and South Korean citizen are suspected in the break-in.

In the days leading up to the attack, the court says, Hong Chang bought tactical and combat material at a Madrid store, including five fast-draw gun holsters, four combat knives and six replica handguns.

In the afternoon of Feb. 22, the statement says, Hong Chang asked to see the business supervisor at the embassy before letting the rest of the group in. Upon entry, the group started to "violently hit staff members until they were able to tie them up and blindfold them," the judge says.

One woman held in the embassy was able to escape out of a first-floor window and asked for help, according to the statement. Neighbors heard her and called the police, who then knocked on the embassy door and attempted to talk to those inside. Hong Chang allegedly opened the door, wearing a North Korean pin, and told police that everything was in order.

According to De la Mata, three of the suspects identified themselves to a staff member during the attack as members of "an association or human rights movement for a free North Korea."

After several hours, the individuals took off in three embassy cars, carrying stolen pen drives, computers, hard drives and cellphones with them. The statement says the 10 alleged assailants split into four groups and immediately fled to Portugal, where they took flights to New York and New Jersey.

De la Mata says Hong Chang contacted the FBI four days after arriving in New York via Newark, allegedly offering to hand over material stolen from the embassy. The statement says he admitted to having perpetrated the attack on the embassy with a group of other, unidentified individuals.

The online statement apparently from the Free Joseongroup, meanwhile, argues "this was not an attack."

"We responded to an urgent situation in the Madrid embassy. We were invited into the embassy, and contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten. Out of respect for the host nation of Spain, no weapons were used."

The statement also says, "The organization shared certain information of enormous potential value with the FBI in the United States, under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality. ... Those terms appear to have been broken."

The Washington Post reported the possible involvement of Free Joseon on March 15.

A video posted on the Free Joseon site and YouTube on March 20 shows an individual smashing photos of North Korea's former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. A caption reading "on our homeland's soil" suggests it could have taken place at the embassy in Madrid, but the video lacks sufficient detail to be linked, according to Aric Toler, an open-source analyst with the online investigative group Bellingcat.

Spanish media previously reported that the group could be affiliated with U.S. intelligence. The Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment to NPR. But Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer who covered North Korea, says he doubts the CIA would be involved so close to the Trump-Kim summit.

"If U.S. involvement were uncovered, it would jeopardize the summit, U.S.-North Korean negotiations/diplomacy, and potentially trigger a strong North Korean response including kinetic action," Klingner, who is now at the Heritage Foundation, said in an email.

It seems unlikely that the latest possible revelations about the break-in will have a major impact on current negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, saysEric Brewer, a former staffer at the National Security Council who worked on North Korean issues and is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

He points to continued U.S. economic sanctions on North Korea and the North's ongoing missile and nuclear programs as far larger issues. "There's a lot of problems that could foreseeably disrupt diplomacy," he says. "But this isn't among them."

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.