A former US Marine wanted by Spain for breaking into the North Korean embassy in Madrid to help a diplomat defect could be assassinated by Kim Jong-un’s regime if he is extradited by the Justice Department, his lawyer says.
Christopher Ahn, 40, faces his final extradition hearing in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Two years ago, he was freed on $1.3million bail but was forced to serve home confinement ahead of his possible extradition to Spain.
Ahn’s attorney says that extradition puts his client’s life in jeopardy since the North has been known to send hit squads to target enemies of the state – even if they are on foreign soil.
Ahn was arrested in LA by US Marshals in 2019 – weeks after he and a group of anti-Kim activists devoted to helping North Koreans flee the authoritarian country broke into the embassy in Madrid in an attempt to help a top diplomat defect.
The plan was to make it appear as if they were going to kidnap Yun Suk So, the commercial attaché at the embassy and the most senior official representing Pyongyang in Spain, according to BuzzFeed News.
Christopher Ahn, 40, faces his final extradition hearing in federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday
Ahn is a former US Marine wanted by Spain for breaking into the North Korean embassy in Madrid to help a diplomat defect in 2019
Ahn is allegedly shown in a still photo from a surveillance camera standing in front of the North Koria embassy in Madrid on February 22, 2019
Ahn (pictured moments before the incident) and alleged co-conspirators including Adrian Hong Chang, a leader of the Free Joseon group, tied up North Korean diplomats and started beating them up as part of an elaborate plot to stage a kidnapping to trick the Kim regime into thinking their envoys had been abducted
North Korea punishes the families of those who defect to the West, so Ahn and his alleged co-conspirators thought if they could trick the Kim government into believing their diplomat in Spain was kidnapped, it would spare his relatives back home.
According to law enforcement officials in Spain, Ahn and his cohorts broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid, tied up some of the diplomats there, and started beating them up.
Ahn and other members of the group Free Joseon, whose name means ‘Free North Korea,’ claim that they were allowed into the embassy by diplomats who had agreed to help them execute their plan to facilitate their escape.
But the plan went awry when the diplomats told Ahn and the other members of Free Joseon that they changed their minds and had no intention of defecting from North Korea.
President Joe Biden is pictured left. North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un is pictured right. Biden’s Justice Department is seeking to have Ahn extradited to Spain – a move that could possibly put his life in jeopardy, according to the American’s attorney
Ahn and the other alleged co-conspirators involved in the plot fled the embassy into getaway cars. They then managed to take taxis to Portugal, where they booked a flight back home to the US.
But Spanish police using surveillance footage from that evening identified the members of the group and sought their extradition from the US.
Spain and the US have an extradition treaty which requires DOJ to send anyone suspected of a crime to Madrid if there is probable cause that person should stand trial for crimes that would also be crimes in the US.
If a judge approves DOJ’s request to extradite Ahn to Spain, he faces up to 24 years in prison on charges of illegal entry, assault, illegal confinement, and being part of a criminal organization.
But Ahn’s attorneys say that extraditing him puts his life in jeopardy as the US government reportedly obtained intelligence indicating that the Kim regime wishes to assassinate him.
Spain and North Korea have full-fledged diplomatic relations, meaning that Korean nationals from the North could freely travel to Western Europe and potentially try to target Ahn.
The North Korean government has been accused of sending hit squads to try and assassinate the regime’s perceived enemies.
In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was killed when a group of operatives acting on the orders of the North Korean government poisoned him with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lampur International Airport in Malaysia.
If a judge approves DOJ’s request to extradite Ahn to Spain, he faces up to 24 years in prison on charges of illegal entry, assault, illegal confinement, and being part of a criminal organization
Ahn, a former Marine, is seen in the above undated file photo taken during his deployment to Iraq
In 2019, Ahn (above) was arrested by US Marshals during a raid on the Los Angeles apartment of a co-defendant, Adrian Hong Chang, a leader of the Free Joseon group
Hong Chang (pictured) has not been arrested. During incident, Hong Chang knocked on the embassy’s door and asked to speak to a specific official. He was let inside and moments later let the group inside. They were armed with machetes, iron bars, knives and fake guns
In 2019, Ahn was arrested by US Marshals during a raid on the Los Angeles apartment of a co-defendant, Adrian Hong Chang, a leader of the Free Joseon group.
Hong Chang was not at home and has not been arrested.
Free Joseon, also known as the Cheollima Civil Defense group, styles itself as a government in exile dedicated to toppling the ruling Kim family dynasty in North Korea.
Hong Chang knocked on the embassy’s door on February 22, 2019, and asked to speak to a specific official, according to court papers filed by the US Attorney’s Office.
After he was let inside and a worker walked away, Hong Chang opened the door and let in six other members of the group, including Ahn, according to the documents.
The group – armed with machetes, iron bars, knives and fake guns – beat some of the workers and then tied them up with shackles and cables, prosecutors alleged.
They put bags over some of the workers’ heads, beat them and threatened them with the metal bars and guns, according to the court papers.
The wife of one of the embassy officials tried to escape from a terrace but fell and was injured.
Another woman and a young child were guarded as the attack continued.
One of the embassy workers later identified Ahn (pictured) as an attacker from his LinkedIn profile picture. When Ahn was arrested, US Marshals found a loaded .40 caliber handgun hidden in his waistband
When Spanish police officials arrived, Hong Chang answered the embassy’s front door – posing as an embassy official and wearing a pin featuring North Korea’s leader on his jacket – and told the officers there was no commotion inside.
The hostages were beaten and held for hours as the group stole several ‘pen drives,’ two computers, two hard drives and a cell phone, the complaint said.
Five of the members of the group fled in three vehicles they stole from the embassy, documents said. The vehicles were later found abandoned.
As the other members of the group fled in the stolen embassy vehicles, Hong Chang hailed an Uber using the alias ‘Oswaldo Trump.’
He canceled the first ride because the Uber pulled up near police and summoned another a few minutes later behind the embassy, taking a ride to Toledo, Spain.
Three North Korean students went to the embassy, jumped over a fence and ran inside to free the workers who were still tied up.
Outside the embassy, police found a fake Italian identification card with the name ‘Matthew Chao’ and a photo of Hong Chang.
Police in Madrid also found four machetes, the imitation pistols, cable ties and a ‘defensive spray,’ the documents said.
Police believe Hong Chang had purchased the items the morning of the attack.
Hong Chang’s attorney, Lee S. Wolosky, didn’t immediately respond Tuesday to a call seeking comment.
The day after the attack, Hong Chang returned to the US, flying from Lisbon, Portugal, and met with agents at the FBI’s office in New York.
During the interview, he turned over the items he stole from the embassy, the complaint said.
Hong Chang also told the agents he had ‘carried out the raid on the North Korean Embassy in Spain days before,’ and provided the FBI with details, the papers said.
Ahn’s lawyers say that extraditing him to Spain places his life in jeopardy since the US has intelligence indicating that North Korea wants to assassinate him. The North Korean government has been accused of sending hit squads to try and assassinate the regime’s perceived enemies. In 2017, Kim Jong-nam (above), the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, was killed when a group of operatives acting on the orders of the North Korean government poisoned him with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lampur International Airport in Malaysia
He told agents that he and members of the group had carried — but did not display — knives and airsoft pistols.
After the attack, Hong Chang also met with FBI agents at the bureau’s office in Los Angeles and told them that Christopher Ahn, a former Marine, had participated in the attack.
One of the embassy workers later identified Ahn as an attacker from his LinkedIn profile picture.
When Ahn was arrested, US Marshals found a loaded .40 caliber handgun hidden in his waistband.
His attorney, Callie Steele, said in court that the gun was licensed and Ahn carried it after the FBI informed him that there were threats against his life.
In court documents, US prosecutors said Ahn had a ‘strong incentive to flee’ because he faces more than 10 years in prison if he’s extradited and convicted in Spain.
Steele denied Ahn was a flight risk because he was a devoted caregiver to his ill mother and 98-year-old grandmother, who is blind.
The Los Angeles native received an honorable discharge from the Marines, earned an MBA from the University of Virginia, and has no criminal record, Steele said.
Ahn’s case has attracted nationwide attention, including from the parents of Otto Warmbier.
Ahn’s case has attracted nationwide attention, including from the parents of Otto Warmbier. Warmbier (seen above in North Korean custody after his arrest in January 2016) died 17 months after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by North Korea
Cindy and Fred Warmbier, Otto’s parents, were expected to attend Ahn’s extradition hearing in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The couple is seen above in May 2018
In January 2016, Warmbier, a 22-year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by North Korea for trying to take from his hotel an item bearing a propaganda slogan.
Warmbier had been arrested at the airport in Pyongyang as he prepared to leave the reclusive communist country. He had been traveling with a tour group.
Seventeen months after his arrest, Warmbier died shortly after he was released into US custody. At the time of his release, Warmbier was comatose.
A coroner found that Warmbier suffered from a lack of oxygen to the brain that was caused by an injury that took place more than a year before his death.
Cindy and Fred Warmbier, Otto’s parents, were expected to attend Ahn’s extradition hearing in Los Angeles on Tuesday.