The Secret Group Trying to Topple North Korea’s Regime

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When writer Suki Kim heard on the news that there had been a break-in at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, led by a young man named Adrian Hong, she “sat upright.” She had known Adrian for several years. They had crossed paths at a Korean Students Conference in 2003, after which Kim went on to write the book Without You, There Is No Us, about her time as an English teacher in Pyongyang, and Adrian became an activist who spread awareness about human rights abuses in the Hermit Kingdom. Now he was being hunted by two governments. When Kim texted Adrian, he agreed to meet with her at a barbecue restaurant in Times Square. He told her that, yes, he’d led the break-in, but for good cause: He was now a leader of Free Joseon, a secretive international network of activists seeking regime change in Pyongyang:

“Regimes like this don’t collapse slowly. It happens instantly. Every revolution is that way, and this will be the same,” Adrian told me. “I don’t mean a revolution in a figurative sense. I don’t mean the revolution of the mind. Or some kind of fantasy where five hundred thousand people protest in Pyongyang and the regime just packs their bags and leaves and some transitional government comes in place. This is not like any other country, where offering them enough money will mean they will liberalize—any opening or reform will result in their insecurity. The only way to make them change is to force them to change.”

Adrian had no formal protection for his actions, not even from the U.S. government: If he was apprehended in New York for what happened in Madrid, he could be extradited and face up to 28 years in prison. In her New Yorker feature “Follow the Leader,” Kim recounts how Adrian went from working at NGOs to risking his life in the name of freedom alongside likeminded activists. One of them is Chris Ahn, who Kim called on to help with a high-profile defection. Ahn was traveling at the time:

“Holy shit, it’s perfect,” Adrian said, when Chris told him that he was in Manila. “You know what’s happened with Kim Jong Nam, right?” Chris did. The day before Adrian’s call, the eldest son of Kim Jong Il had been assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport, by two women who smeared a nerve agent on his face. The killing was assumed to have been ordered by Kim Jong Un, his half brother, in the interest of eliminating a potential rival. Adrian told Chris that he had just received a call from Kim Han Sol, who is believed to be Kim Jong Nam’s eldest son. According to Adrian, they were introduced in Paris, around 2013, by a mutual contact. Han Sol, who was wearing a pair of Gucci shoes, told Adrian that he was aware of his work with North Korea. The two men kept in touch. Adrian told me, “Never met a kid with so much money. Kim Jong Nam had stashed away a lot of cash during his life.” Immediately after his father’s death, Han Sol noticed that the Macau police who typically guarded his house had disappeared. He called the mutual contact to tell Adrian that he, along with his mother and his sister, needed to get out of Macau as soon as possible. It was easy to see why Han Sol would be of interest to various countries and their intelligence services. Considered by some to be the rightful heir of the former Great Leader, Han Sol represented valuable leverage to whoever captured him, dead or alive—Adrian called this a “zero-sum game.”

Adrian, who was in the U.S., asked Chris, “Can you go meet them at the airport in Taiwan tonight, and make sure that no one is following them?” Chris threw some clothes in his backpack and headed to the airport. It was after midnight when he arrived in Taipei. He had Han Sol’s flight number, and he found a small noodle stand by the gate, where Han Sol and his family could sit while he scanned the crowd for threats.

The family arrived early that morning, wearing sanitary masks to cover their faces, which wasn’t unusual in Asia even then. Han Sol was about five feet ten inches tall, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and a coat, and rolling a suitcase. His mother was a pretty middle-aged woman, who reminded Chris of his own mother. Han Sol’s sister, who was wearing jeans, looked to be in her late teens. Adrian had told the family that Chris would be wearing a black T-shirt and a Dodgers cap and would answer to the name Steve. Han Sol spotted Chris and said, “Steve?” Chris nodded and said, “Let’s go.”

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