Mystery deepens in North Korean embassy break-in after shadowy group claims responsibility

PHOTO: An outside view of the Embassy of North Korea in Madrid, Spain, March 27, 2019. PlayVictor Lerena/EPA/Shutterstock
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Spanish police are calling it a brazen daylight “assault” on North Korea's embassy in Madrid by a shadowy group of assailants in February. But as more information emerges, the mystery surrounding the bizarre international incident has only grown.

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“It’s like a thing from Hollywood movies,” Kristine Lee, a researcher at the Center for New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program, told ABC News.

According to local authorities, on the afternoon of Feb. 22, a group of 10 people using fake firearms burst into the North Korean embassy in the Spanish capital, badly beat and bound some staff members and tried to convince a high-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect. The diplomat declined and was himself gagged, authorities said.

The assailants held the embassy for several hours, but in the meantime, the wife of a North Korean employee managed to escape by jumping out a window. She alerted locals who called the police. When the police arrived, the leader of the assailants, identified as Adrian Hong Chang, purportedly greeted them at the door posing as a diplomat and told an officer everything was fine, authorities said.

The assailants then left the embassy with computers, hard drives and other electronics in tow using embassy vehicles and, for Hong Chang and an associate, a ride-share car that had been arranged under the name Oswaldo Trump, according to Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

PHOTO: An outside view of the Embassy of North Korea in Madrid, Spain, March 27, 2019. Victor Lerena/EPA/Shutterstock
An outside view of the Embassy of North Korea in Madrid, Spain, March 27, 2019.

The dramatic story took another turn when Spanish authorities revealed that Hong Chang, a Mexican citizen and resident of the U.S., apparently passed information on to the FBI in New York days after the incident.

An early Spanish media report initially linked the incident to the CIA, but two former U.S. intelligence officials told ABC News they would be very highly skeptical of the agency’s involvement in such a brazen incident, especially since it came just days before President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. A spokesperson for the CIA declined to comment. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Robert Palladino, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told reporters Tuesday, "The United States government had nothing to do with this."

During the incident Spanish authorities said the assailants identified themselves as members of a human rights organization dedicated to regime change in North Korea.

On Tuesday a dissident group calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense claimed responsibility but said in a vague statement they were only responding to “an urgent situation” in the embassy. The group denied it had used violence or gagged anyone in its operation. It also apologized to Spain for involving the European nation in the group’s struggle against the North Korean regime.

“Our fight is only against the regime’s practices and on behalf of millions of our enslaved people,” reads a statement posted on a website that appears to belong to the group, whose involvement was first reported by The Washington Post.

Jenny Town, a North Korea analyst at the Stimson Center’s “38 North,” told ABC News little is known about the Cheollima Civil Defense group, which first came to some prominence in the wake of the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in 2017. At the time, the group claimed it had helped protect Nam’s son, Kim Han Sol.

The group’s purported leader, Adrian Hong Chang, appears to be the Adrian Hong who was known to North Korean observers for his work with dissidents in the past, according to The Associated Press. In the mid-2000s, when he was a college student, Hong co-founded a group called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) that was devoted to helping North Korean refugees.

But Hong left LiNK a decade ago and has had “no involvement” with it since, according to Hannah Song, LiNK’s current CEO.

“We have no knowledge of his recent activities, and we have no information on the Madrid Embassy incident other than what has been published by the media,” Song said in a statement provided to ABC News.

PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds a military meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released, March 27, 2019. Korean Central News Agency/Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds a military meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released, March 27, 2019.

Town, who said she knew Hong years ago, said she didn’t understand what the group was trying to do in Madrid – especially by allegedly using violence, according to the Spanish police.

“That’s what makes this case really kind of surprising… It’s hard to kind of figure out what they hope to accomplish from all this,” she said. “If they’re really looking for regime change, what lengths are they willing to go to sort of engineer this?”

ABC News has been unable to reach Hong Chang for comment. Lee Wolosky, an American attorney for the group, told ABC News in a statement, "The reported comments of the Spanish judge are misinformed in critical aspects and the decision to disclose the names of those opposing a regime that routinely assassinates its opponents is deeply troubling."

Wolosky called on the U.S. government and its allies to “support those who are assisting North Koreans fleeing a murderous regime and who are otherwise opposing the Kim regime.”

Town said she was unsure how North Korea would respond to the incident, but would likely attempt to keep it relatively quiet.

Lee, the Center for New American Security analyst, said that while it might be a minor embarrassment for Kim on the international stage, it would likely have little impact on North Koreans.

After all, she said, Kim’s control over the domestic media means it’s unlikely most people inside the country will ever know it happened.

ABC News’ Jack Date contributed to this report.

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