In Brief

North Korea: who are the Cheollima Civil Defence?

Shadowy self-styled ‘government in waiting’ are committed to overthrowing North Korean regime

A shadowy group committed to overthrowing the North Korean regime has claimed responsibility for a violent raid on the country’s embassy in Madrid last month.

Ten members of the Cheollima Civil Defence (CDC), a self-styled human rights group and “government-in-waiting”, shackled beat and interrogated embassy staff during the incident on 22 February, a Spanish high court judge has revealed.

Writing on its own website that it had “responded to an urgent situation in the Madrid embassy”, “it remains unclear why the raid took place”, says the BBC.

It took place less than a week before the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, met US President Donald Trump in Hanoi for denuclearisation talks, “prompting speculation that the group was attempting to obtain information about North Korea’s former ambassador to Spain, Kim Hyok Chol”, reports The Guardian.

The intruders reportedly made off with computers, a phone and hard discs. “The group’s brazen actions led some to speculate that there could be serious dissent against Kim Jong Un taking shape”, reports Reuters “but other analysts were more sceptical, and say there are lingering questions over possible ties to foreign intelligence agencies”.

In a post the CDC, also known as Free Joseon, said it had “shared information of enormous potential value” with the FBI, the US intelligence agency, “under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality”.

El Pais had initially reported that investigators from the Spanish police and National Intelligence Center (CNI) had linked the embassy attack to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), something if proven “could lead to a diplomatic spat between Madrid and Washington”.

The group has denied it was working with FBI or any other foreign organisation and the US government has also denied any involvement in the raid.

However, Reuters quoted “a judicial source as saying that [high court judge Jose] de la Mata believes all of the identified suspects fled to the US after the raid”.

“The Cheollima Civil Defence has been a topic of conversation among journalists for months”, says the BBC’s Laura Bicker, “but there are still so many questions”.

Cheollima Civil Defence, which takes its name from a winged horse commonly featured in East Asian mythology, first came to prominence after taking credit for getting Kim Jong Un's nephew, Kim Han Sol, safely out of Macau after the assassination of his father.

On 1 March the group published a statement declaring itself the North Korean provisional government in exile and vowed to overthrow the regime for committing crimes against humanity.

Justin McCurry in The Guardian writes that “the group’s use of direct action contrasts with other movements, which have traditionally used propaganda, sent inside the country via leaflets and USB drives, to foment popular opposition to Kim Jong Un’s regime”.

The CDC is believed to be led by Adrian Hong Chang, a Mexican citizen and well-known North Korean human rights activist who lives in the US.

He has helped defectors flee North Korea in the past “but where would he get the funding and the know-how to carry out an operation such as this?” asks Bicker.

Whoever is ultimately behind it, the BBC says the raid “has exposed a group which was once in the shadows and put it firmly in a legal spotlight where it may not want to be”.

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