Heartbreak of Christopher Ahn
Christopher Ahn (left) and other members of Cheollima Civil Defense (later renamed as Free Joseon) waiting to enter the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019.

Heartbreak of Christopher Ahn

Bradley Hope

For the last three years, I've been following the extraordinary story of Adrian Hong and his underground organization, Free Joseon, which is dedicated to taking down the North Korean regime and helping high-profile defectors escape.

(The story is the subject of my new book THE REBEL AND THE KINGDOM, coming out in November).

Adrian was a long-time activist and founder of non-profits dedicated to helping North Koreans, but he gradually became disenchanted with the incremental and tepid approach to the Kim regime in Pyongyang. He was among the outliers who believed saving millions of North Koreans from generations of human rights abuses was more important than even containing Kim Jong-un's nuclear weapons.

The group was relatively low-profile until their most ambitious operation – a fake kidnapping designed to help the commercial attache of the North Korean embassy in Spain escape with his family – blew up in their faces. The men managed to flee Spain, but they were identified by Spanish security services. In a cruel twist, the men immediately contacted the F.B.I. on their return to the U.S. to explain that their rescue had failed. Instead of protecting them or explaining to Spanish authorities the complicated truth, the F.B.I. appears to have simply confirmed to the Spanish their identities.

One of the key characters in that story is a remarkable man called Christopher Ahn, a Marine veteran who volunteered on missions as a person who could bring a sense of calm and empathy to high-intensity situations. He was the Free Joseon operative who flew to help the family of Kim Jong-nam find safety, famously looking after Kim Han-sol, his mother and sister at the Taipei airport before the C.I.A. whisked them away.

When the Spanish brought their criminal case against the men involved in the embassy incident in Madrid, only Christopher was arrested. He's been on a kafkaesque journey ever since – spending months in a Los Angeles prison before more than a year of ultra-strict house arrest. He has been fighting the U.S. government's efforts to extradite him to Spain. Just yesterday, almost a whole year after a hearing about his case, the judge reluctantly ruled he was technically eligible for extradition.

Christopher Ahn (Photo: Philip Cheung)

This is one of the most high-profile cases based on a total misunderstanding I've ever seen.

The official who was going to be rescued asked for Free Joseon's help and changed his mind when things got dicey, but afterwards he – unsurprisingly – testified that they tried to kidnap him. What would you expect him to do? Explain on the record he was trying to escape the clutches of the North Korean regime, which famously punishes three generations of so-called traitors. The Spanish, perhaps still hurt from the C.I.A.'s extraordinary rendition program in Europe in the post-9/11 era, chose to ignore any evidence to the contrary (and the absolutely ridiculous notion that these guys would simply break into an embassy to kidnap a top official) and pursue a criminal case. The U.S. government didn't want to seem like it somehow was involved in the operation, even though top officials knew Adrian well from literally years of rescues led by him and organizations he founded. So they simply confirmed they had evidence Adrian and the group were involving, making it infinitely easier for Spain to make a case for extradition.

What's most remarkable about the ruling itself is the genuine heart-ache of the Judge Jean Rosenbluth as she found no way to stop an extradition she felt was completely wrong. Here are some choice excerpts.

"Although I conclude that the law requires me to certify, I do not think it’s the right result, and I hope that a higher court will either tell me I’m wrong or itself block the extradition."
Based on what I know, I believe that extraditing Ahn to Spain would be “antipathetic” to our common “sense of decency,” the standard first set out for a humanitarian exception to extradition.
I lay out here the reasons why I wish I could invoke a humanitarian exception to keep Ahn in the United States, and I humbly ask the Ninth Circuit to clarify that it didn’t mean to rule the exception out categorically.20 There would be no shame in that. Certainly no one could have ever imagined a case like this one, and the humanitarian exception deserves to be considered anew in its context.
At the time of the embassy raid he was in his late 30s and had no criminal record. He served his country honorably in the Marines for six years. A Medal of Honor winner who knows him calls him a “faithful and dutiful Marine” whose “life is predicated on honor and duty.” He has volunteered for many charitable organizations. Even the crimes with which Spain has charged him were almost certainly motivated by altruism — a desire to help the oppressed, brutalized, starved people of North Korea, who can’t help themselves — rather than greed or lust or power or addiction, the typical motivators of the criminal mind.
Yes, Ahn should have to face a court reckoning of some kind for possibly violating at least the letter of the law. But he should not be cast off to face an uncertain fate at the hands of a despot, perhaps sacrificed to advance a foreign-policy agenda. If I thought I could, I would require any trial of Ahn to be here in the United States, and I hope that a judge or judges tasked with fixing law instead of simply following it will do just that.
CONCLUSION Because I believe that Prasoprat and the other law by which I am bound does not foreclose a higher court, as opposed to a magistrate judge, from applying the humanitarian exception, I hold out some hope that this court will not become an “accomplice” to Ahn’s otherwise inevitable extradition. See From Thomas Jefferson to Edmond Charles Genet, 12 September 1793, Founders Online, Nat’l Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/ documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0098 (Jefferson observing that to deliver fugitives to countries where they would be mistreated was to become “accomplice” to that mistreatment). Cindy Warmbier said that Ahn needed a “strong woman” to “stand up to North Korea.” (Tr. at 155.) I regret that I am too weak, in power if not in will, to save him from the threat of torture and assassination by that outcast nation.

Christopher's legal team are filing a habeas corpus application, I'm told, so he isn't going to face actual extradition anytime soon. It will still mean more years of purgatory as he awaits further hearings and a new ruling from a higher court.

Something else surreal: if he's extradited to Spain, the case will ultimately fall apart because no North Korean official has ever testified in a local criminal case like this. What's more, the entire embassy staff, save for the commercial attache himself were quietly sent back to Pyongyang afterwards. It'll be an impossible case to prosecute.

More to come on this.


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This is the thirty-fifth edition of WHALE HUNTING, a newsletter delving into the secret worlds of money and power that we became obsessed with during our multi-year investigation into the globe-sprawling 1MDB scandal. That project changed our entire worldview. We wrote a book about it. We were long-time reporters for the Wall Street Journal before setting off on our own last year to create Project Brazen, a journalism studio and production company. We're creating books, podcasts and documentaries, and we'll share behind-the-scenes insights into the characters and stories we find along the way.

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