Free Joseon is the leading North Korean resistance body against the regime of Kim Jong Un. Self-branded as the government-in-exile. Free Joseon organised the break-in to the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.
Free Joseon Relevance
The existence of organised North Korean opposition sounds like a myth, considering the security state led by Kim Jong Un. An established government-in-exile in a western country seems unlikely. Western recognition creates unrest with the North Korean government and risks an escalation.
Cheollima Civil Defence (CCD), or ‘Free Joseon’, is the resistance organisation opposing the North Korean regime. The de-centralised group provides capabilities for North Korean refugees looking to flee the dictatorship. While considered as the government-in-exile, the North Korean resistance likely prioritises undermining the Kim dynasty over establishing an official governmental body.
The North Korean resistance is likely affected by difficulties in attracting popular support and momentum. The security state continued by Kim Jong Un likely acts as a deterrent against support for Free Joseon. While the regime particularly affects North Korean dissidents, it also prevents international initiative to show support.
Chronology: LINK and the CCD
The organisation Liberty In North Korea (LINK) was established in 2004 at Yale University by Adrian Hong and Paul Kim. It was intended as a platform to raise awareness of North Korean defectors through lobbying. The organisation evolved to provide assistance to defectors in China seeking to flee repatriation. Hong abandoned LINK in 2008, reportedly due to lack of effectiveness, and founded the CCD in 2010, intended to achieve change ‘on the ground’.
By 2014, the North Korean resistance recruited members amongst defectors, and in 2017 a meeting was held in New York City where 50 members gathered to discuss future action. The CCD decided to focus on defections while increasing public attraction, targeting high-level or governmental officials of the North Korean regime.
Free Joseon and the CCD
The CCD or Free Joseon as it was renamed in 2019, likely provides transport and protective services to defectors. Similar to actions carried out with LINK, the CCD receives demands for support or aid to defect from the regime. The North Korean resistance organises strategies to extract individuals from the North Korean lifestyle, whether within North Korean territory or overseas.
Free Joseon, apart from logistical and transport aid, engages in subversive activities targeting the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un. For example, the North Korean Madrid embassy was occupied by members of Free Joseon to help defect a member of staff before the operation was called off. Moreover, the nature of aiding defectors implies a certain degree of illegality.
Hong, for example, was jailed for a week in China in 2008 after helping defectors exit North Korea. While the embassy and arrests attracted media attention and relevance, the North Korean resistance was likely identified more as a non-state actor than a provisional government-in-exile. Moreover, capability showed by carrying out international journeys and financing activities make it a realistic probability that Free Joseon receives funding from state organisations.
The nature of Kim Jong Un’s government forces the North Korean resistance to adopt a clandestine nature. Based on the website, the organisation refuses to acknowledge any members, identities or structure. Activity online is limited to the promotion of ideological narratives and explanatory statements regarding media appearances.
(Logo of Cheollima Civil Defence and Free Josen)
It is likely that Free Joseon enjoys other means of communication. Still, cryptic messages on the website are posted through the likely use of a one-time-pad along with what are likely coded names. The latest coded entry dates to the 21st of January of 2021, indicating activity after the publicity received following the incident in Madrid. The North Korean resistance, with its leader Adrian Hong gone dark following an arrest order, is likely to maintain the existing level of secrecy if it seeks to achieve a degree of change to North Korean dynamics.
Free Joseon: Diplomatic escort & Scandal in Madrid
In 2017, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, was assassinated using a nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur. Kim Han-sol, Nam’s direct in line, reached out to Adrian Hong and Free Joseon to obtain an extraction from Taiwan to Western soil. Former US Marine Christopher Ahn, a member of Free Joseon and close to Adrian Hong, escorted the family until being approached by 2 alleged CIA operatives seeking to question the North Korean.
Han-sol and his family boarded the plane but never reached the Free Joseon party waiting at Schiphol airport, the Netherlands. According to the New Yorker, it is likely that the CIA took custody of the nephew of Kim Jong-Un.
On the 22nd of February 2019, prior to the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, 10 members of Free Joseon took control of the North Korean embassy in Madrid. Including Adrian Hong and Christopher Ahn, members allegedly staged a kidnapping to aid one staff member who wished to defect. Ahn and the other members entered the compound with the aid of an insider, carrying fake weapons to provide surveillance with evidence that the kidnapping was real.
After a staff member escaped and alerted authorities, the member who wished to defect questioned the success of the operation and decided to abort the extraction. The North Korean resistance, despite not succeeding, obtained classified and sensitive documents which were delivered to the FBI.