The Guardian

Inside the bizarre, bungled raid on North Korea's Madrid embassy

In February, a gang of armed men took a North Korean official hostage and demanded that he defect. When he refused, their plan fell apart, and they fled. Who were they, and why did they risk everything on this wild plot? By Giles Tremlett

Shortly before 5pm on 22 February, a suited man with a lapel pin bearing the dimpled face of Kim Jong-un rang the doorbell of the North Korean embassy in Madrid. The man had visited the embassy before. Fifteen days earlier, he had been turned away by an official who was suspicious of his claims that he was a businessman hoping to invest in North Korea. Before he left, the visitor gave the official his card, which said he ran a Dubai-based investment fund named Baron Stone Capital.

Now the visitor had returned, claiming he had a gift for the embassy’s senior official, So Yun-sok. This time, he was ushered inside and asked to wait in the courtyard between the compound’s main two-storey building and its solid metal outer gate. While the official went to look for Mr So, the visitor walked to the perimeter of the compound and surreptitiously released the lock on the outside gate.

A few moments later, a group of men carrying combat knives, iron bars, handcuffs and fake pistols burst through the embassy door. According to a 14-page summary of the incident by the Spanish high court judge José de la Mata, within minutes all four male employees at the embassy had been tied up and bundled into a first-floor meeting room. The assailants, some wearing black balaclavas and others with their faces uncovered, spoke in American English and the distinctive Korean of Seoul and the South.

Mr So’s wife, named in Spanish court documents as Jang Ok Gyong, was watching television with their eight-year-old son when she heard what sounded like a struggle in the hallway. She locked the room, but soon the assailants forced their way in, though they insisted they would do her no harm. For the next four hours, she and her son were held captive, watched by a man with a black scarf over his face, a body camera and what seemed like a real gun in a holster. She claims she was so terrified that she secretly grabbed a razor to slit her wrists, but was unable to follow through. Instead, she and her son huddled together under a blanket.

In the meeting room, according to testimony from the embassy staff, the assailants placed black hoods over the hostages’ heads, swapped some of the plastic cable ties they had used to secure the hostages for handcuffs, and ordered them to sit in silence. One assailant was allegedly overheard asking another exactly how many people were taking part. “There are 11 of us,” was the reply. The senior official, So Yun-sok, was then taken down to the basement, where the group finally revealed one of its aims. They wanted him to defect.

Diplomatic defections are one of North Korea’s most visible problems, and in recent years there have been two high-profile cases. Just a few months before the embassy raid, in late 2018, the acting ambassador to Italy had abandoned his post and gone into hiding. Two years earlier, the deputy ambassador in London, Thae Yong-ho, became the most senior North Korean official to defect to South Korea.

In the basement, the attackers told So Yun-sok they wanted him “to become the ambassador of a new state set up by them – a ‘free’ state,” he later told Spanish investigators. The men claimed that “the North Korean government has very little time left” and said other groups were “going to do the same thing”. Yet there were no embassy raids in other countries, and Mr So refused to defect.

From this point onwards, the assailants’ plan began to fall apart. Eventually, with Spanish police outside the embassy growing increasingly suspicious, the men decided to make their getaway. They were remarkably successful.

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