A Marine veteran says he tried to help North Koreans in Spain defect. Now he faces the threat of assassination

Marine veteran explains alleged fake kidnapping plot to help North Koreans defect

'No one could have ever imagined a case like this one.' Those words from a federal judge describe the plight of Christopher Ahn, an American citizen, who has managed to get himself entangled in a web of intrigue involving the United States, Spain and North Korea.

Tonight, you'll hear about fake kidnappings, political assassinations and dramatic rescues…and you'll get a unique insight into North Korea - the world's most isolated country.

There are almost as many questions as there are answers about this strange story…but one thing seems clear: Christopher Ahn is an endangered man

We met Christopher Ahn in Southern California, where the 43-year-old son of Korean immigrants was born and raised. Ahn joined the Marines at 19 and served in Fallujah…when he returned from Iraq, he got his MBA from the University of Virginia and co-founded a consulting business.

But seven years ago, the self described "do gooder" picked up an unusual hobby: helping North Korean diplomats defect.

Christopher Ahn 60 Minutes

Chris Ahn: I don't think that I could morally look at myself in the mirror if I turned away from someone who was desperately asking for help.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How many North Koreans did you help defect?

Chris Ahn: I always try to lean on caution and not really talk about…

Sharyn Alfonsi: But is it a handful, dozens? Give us a sense of what we're talking about. Or was this, you know, one or two and I'm out?

Chris Ahn: Um it's more than one or two. And it's less than dozens.

Ahn says he did it with a secretive, makeshift group of activists who called themselves Cheollima Civil Defense. They claim to have helped high-profile North Koreans defect.

Chris Ahn: There were whispers within the North Korean diplomatic community-- about this strange organization that was out there, doing this.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Was it a loosely-formed group of people?

Chris Ahn: It was.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And how big are we talking about? 

Chris Ahn: I don't even actually know the-- the number

Cheollima's grand mission was to overthrow the North Korean dictatorship — one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

The underground group was led by this man…. Adrian Hong - a Korean Mexican who held a U.S. green card. A Yale drop out, Hong became a human rights activist.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Adrian Hong has said he considers himself, "a freedom fighter who's conducting a revolution." Did you view yourself as a freedom fighter?

Chris Ahn: No. No. No. I..I..Obviously, Adrian has um his motivations to doing what he wants to do, but my motivation was just simply to bring some hope to people who were hopeless.

In the fall of 2018, Christopher Ahn was in Italy… when a Cheollima team reportedly arranged for North Korea's acting ambassador and his wife to walk out of their embassy in Rome, jump into a waiting car and speed away to freedom. 

Christopher Ahn and Sharyn Alfonsi 60 Minutes

In February of 2019, Christopher Ahn flew to Spain for another secret operation.

Ahn says when he landed, he didn't know the details, but suspected it had something to do with the North Korean embassy in Madrid. He went straight to this safe house…where he learned about the ambitious plan….Cheollima was going to help the entire North Korean embassy……an estimated 10 people…defect

Sharyn Alfonsi: How was the mission explained to you?

Chris Ahn: What I was told was that everyone in the embassy wanted to defect but were afraid to. And so our main point of contact in the embassy had asked us to stage a kidnapping so that there would be some type of plausible reason that all of a sudden, everyone in the embassy disappeared. Because the penalty for defecting is death, but not just for the defector. It's death for everyone the defector knows, interacts with.

Sharyn Alfonsi: If you can make them look like victims, then their families in North Korea or their friends are not in jeopardy?

Chris Ahn: Correct.

Sharyn Alfonsi: At any point did you think, 'This sounds a little bizarre? Like, this sounds crazy, what we're doing here?' Or did you think, 'It's a good idea?'

Chris Ahn: Of course it sounds crazy, (laugh) you know? But what the North Korean people go through is crazy.

Cheollima's mission in Madrid would be its biggest yet: essentially to take over the North Korean embassy and fake a mass kidnapping. On February 22nd, around 4:30, Cheollima leader Adrian Hong, posing as a businessman, went to the front door.

Chris Ahn: He rings the doorbell. And he's let in. Um and what I was told was that the door would be left open for us. And um the plan was that when we received a signal for us to walk into the embassy, and then begin the staged kidnapping.

Moments later, screen grabs from security cameras show other members of the Cheollima team, including Christopher Ahn, walking through the front door of the North Korean embassy.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Where was their security? Aren't their version of Marines posted outside…

Chris Ahn: No…

Sharyn Alfonsi: There was no security outside the embassy…

Chris Ahn: There was no security. When you traditionally think of an embassy um, you think of like, um, you know, reinforced doors and guards and all these kinds of people. Their embassy is not that kind of an embassy. It's a house with a driveway and, and a door that leads into their little compound.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Are you carrying a weapon? Are members of the group…

Chris Ahn: Oh, no. I was never carrying a weapon. But yes, there were weapons there. Um fake guns. So, you know, and who would bring fake guns into a, into a kidnapping, right?

Fake guns, for what he says was a fake kidnapping. Aware they were likely under surveillance, Ahn says embassy staff members were tied up and herded into a room where he- quietly- addressed them

Chris Ahn: 'We've answered your call, and we're here to, to help you defect.'

Sharyn Alfonsi: And how did they react to that?

Chris Ahn: It was disbelief. It was excitement. Someone said um, 'Is this really happening?' And that to me confirmed what I was told earlier that day, that everyone inside wanted to defect.

North Korean embassy in Madrid 60 Minutes

Sharyn Alfonsi: Describe what you saw when you went inside the embassy. What did it look like?

Chris Ahn: There was almost no furniture. It was bare. The walls were bare, except a few propaganda kinda posters. Um and so the whole place was very echoey. And I opened up the refrigerator and there was nothing in there. And immediately, I thought to myself, 'These are the elites. These are the cream of the crop of North Korea. And they have nothing to eat in there.'

One hour into the operation, Ahn says the Cheollima team was on the verge of leaving the embassy with the North Koreans when everything changed.

Chris Ahn: There's a ring at the door and everyone is very surprised by this. And I see that it's the Spanish police. And I'm–that's shocking. "What are they doing here?" I go back into the room with everybody and they asked me quietly. You know, 'Who is at the door? Why is the doorbell ringing?' So I said, 'The police are at the door.' And then you see the color on everyone's face just turn to lily white. And they would whisper to me very terrified, and say that, 'They know, they know, they know.'

As the police waited for someone to answer, Cheollima leader Adrian Hong put on a North Korean lapel pin to look like a diplomat - then opened the front door. The police informed Hong that a bloodied North Korean woman had frantically told them there was a problem inside the embassy…Hong replied nothing was wrong and shut the door….

Chris Ahn: I believe that was when um we realized that not everyone was accounted for.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Who was missing?

Chris Ahn: It was the wife of one of the members of the uh, of the embassy staff.

The wife had jumped off an embassy balcony in the early minutes of the incursion… despite an injured leg, she dragged herself onto the street where she was discovered by an alarmed Spanish motorist…

Chris Ahn: After the police left the phone all of a sudden started ringing, and ringing. It would ring, ring, ring, ring, wait 'bout five, ten seconds and ring, ring, ring, ring again for hours. And in that echoey house where the phone ringing, it's just echoing everywhere, I don't care how courageous you think you are, that is scary. And so it is totally and completely understandable why they would be afraid.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That they'd been caught?

Chris Ahn: Yes.

No one knew who was calling, but the fear was the North Korean government was now aware something was amiss inside its Madrid embassy…the acting ambassador, So Yun Sok, Cheollima's main point of contact for the alleged mass defection, was inside the embassy and seemed spooked.

Chris Ahn: Adrian said 'The main point of contact believes that this mission has been compromised, and that he's too afraid to go.' And so we need to get outta there. Our main point of contact there gives members of the group keys to the embassy vehicles. 

Just after 9 p.m., four and a half hours after it entered the embassy, the Cheollima team fled in the embassy vehicles. They ditched them all over Madrid. No one was caught. Christopher Ahn hailed a cab and went to Portugal, and eventually, back to the United States. 

Left behind at the embassy: knives, handcuffs, fake guns…and the shaken staff.

And now….. the North Korean acting ambassador, who supposedly asked for help defecting, told Spanish police the entire embassy staff had been held against their will and beaten.

Sharyn Alfonsi: At any point did you see anyone harm any members of the North Korean embassy…

Chris Ahn: Oh, never. I mean, it's the exact opposite. I was a little concerned that it didn't look real enough, because they were trying so hard to make sure that nobody got hurt.

Christopher Ahn 60 Minutes

Sharyn Alfonsi: The Spanish authorities say it was a kidnapping. What do you say?

Chris Ahn: Well, it means we did our job. We made it look real, and that was the point (laughs). We wanted it– to make it look real as possible, because we had to. We had no other choice. 

The Cheollima team took and later posted video of one of its members - not Christopher Ahn - smashing the photos of North Korean leaders inside the embassy…that raised more questions….as did the timing of the raid.

It happened five days before then President Trump met for a second time with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi. A meeting some human rights activists feared would "empower" the North Korean regime.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Was the intention of the operation to provoke Kim Jong Un?

Chris Ahn: I didn't even know that that was happening. Again,

Sharyn Alfonsi: Come on. Everybody knew that was happening.

Chris Ahn: I mean, if you are a North Korea watcher or…

Sharyn Alfonsi: You are a North Korea watcher.

Chris Ahn: (laugh) I am not. I am not. I'm just a guy from L.A., you know

Sharyn Alfonsi: It seems like you would be aware of that, that this was in your orbit, that you cared what was going on. You're a smart guy. This, the whole world is talking about these two leaders meeting. You didn't know that was gonna happen?

Chris Ahn: So maybe I did, but, none of what I am doing is, is motivated by anything political or anything um bigger than the fact that I was asked to help these defectors defect.

Back in the U.S., Adrian Hong turned over computers and other digital data Cheollima took from the North Korean embassy to the FBI. Christopher Ahn says he also met with FBI agents at his apartment in LA.

Chris Ahn: We had a really friendly conversation. They asked me about my involvement, what happened. I tried to be as truthful as I could. You know, we ended the meeting with me asking, like, 'Hey, is everything good, you know? Should I be concerned with anything?' And their response was, 'Oh, no, not at all. From our perspective, you were furthering American interests.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you thought, 'I'm good.'

Chris Ahn: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And then what happened?

Chris Ahn: Well (sighs) about two, three weeks after that or so, one of the FBI agents called me and said that North Korea had discovered my identity, and that I needed to be vigilant. And that the only place in this world that I am safe is here in the United States.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The FBI has told you what about the threat?

Chris Ahn: The FBI has told me that my life is in danger. That the North Korean government is now, and will be, targeting me for assassination.

Christopher Ahn maintains when he and a group of human rights activists from Cheollima Civil Defense entered the North Korean embassy in Madrid in 2019, it was all theater…part of a botched "fake kidnapping" to help the North Korean embassy staff who wanted to defect. In the aftermath of the incursion, the FBI warned Ahn and Cheollima's leader Adrian Hong that their lives were in danger.

Two months after the raid in Madrid, Christopher Ahn says he was carrying a gun for protection when he came here, to Adrian Hong's LA apartment, to drop off security cameras…he was stunned to find U.S. Marshals inside.

Chris Ahn: I open the door and I walk in, and the marshals are in there. And I surprised them, they surprised me. You know, they put a gun to my head and said, like, 'Don't move or I'll blow your brains out.'

Ahn says he was handcuffed and taken to jail for his role in the raid of the North Korean embassy in Madrid.

Sharyn Alfonsi: When you're in jail, are you thinking, 'This is a big misunderstanding, and surely I'll be out any day?' Or did you think, 'This doesn't look good?'

Chris Ahn: I thought I'd get bail, right, immediately. I don't have a criminal record. I don't think I even had a parking ticket in the last 15 years.

Christopher Ahn spent 87 days behind bars in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center…

Spain had issued international arrest warrants for him and seven other Cheollima activists, charging them with breaking and entering, illegal restraint and causing injuries…

Sharyn Alfonsi: Spain has said it's a criminal organization. Was it a criminal organization, in your mind? 

Chris Ahn: I mean, unless it's a crime to care, and it's a crime to help people? 

Sharyn Alfonsi: I get wanting to help people. But why not let you know, the CIA, let the professionals do this?

Chris Ahn: I think it's because all those professionals haven't done this. What is a diplomat supposed to do? Who are they supposed to go to if they want to escape? Are they supposed to go to the embassy of their sworn enemy? They have lived their entire lives knowing that they're being watched 24/7 and we're the only ones in the world that they trust.

U.S. Marshals published a wanted poster for Cheollima leader, Adrian Hong, calling him armed and dangerous. He went underground and remains a fugitive today. Christopher Ahn is now out on bail, but he's been ordered to wear an ankle monitor…. his legal saga is far from over. Spain wants him to stand trial in Madrid. There is an extradition treaty between the United States and Spain. And for Five years, the U. S. Department of Justice has argued that federal courts are obligated to sign off on sending Christopher Ahn to Spain.

Sharyn Alfonsi: This is what the U.S. attorney has said about the case. He said, 'Countries have an obligation to protect diplomats. That's how it works. And for Spain, it is a black eye to have a group come in and commit what they are charging as crimes.' Is that a fair point? Does Spain have a duty to protect foreign embassies on its soil? 

Chris Ahn: Of course they do. Spain needs to make sure that other countries and their embassies feel safe. The United States needs to make sure that their allies know that they honor their treaties and their agreements. But North Korea's not a normal country.

Sung-Yoon Lee 60 Minutes

Sung-Yoon Lee: It's a terrorist state. 

Sung-Yoon Lee is a fellow at the Wilson Center- a Washington-based think tank. An expert on North Korea, he testified at Christopher Ahn's federal court hearing that if Ahn is extradited to Spain, he would be vulnerable to North Korean assassins…

Sharyn Alfonsi: You think they will go after Christopher Ahn?

Sung-Yoon Lee: Absolutely

Sharyn Alfonsi: In Spain?

Sung-Yoon Lee: Well, Spain is an advanced country. But North Korea is brazen enough to commit crimes like kidnapping and murder in several European countries. Christopher Ahn is, I'm afraid a very high priority target for the Kim regime. And the reason is because the so-called raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid was unprecedented. Moreover, Christopher Ahn is the person, we learnt later, who challenged the unchallengeable, infallible, inviolable North Korean leader twice.

Twice. Because, in a crazy twist, to a crazy story, Christopher Ahn had been involved in another rescue that outraged North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un….two years before the Madrid raid.

February 2017…the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia… those are two suspected North Korean agents lurking in the departure hall and that is Kim Jong Nam, the half brother and critic of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un….he enters the hall to catch a flight around 9 a.m.

In this blurry video, Kim Jong Nam is accosted by two women, who smear him in the eyes with V-X nerve agent - a banned chemical weapon…within 30 minutes, he is dead.

Chris Ahn: This assassination occurs. And it's a shock to everyone.

Including the 21-year-old son of Kim Jong Nam who was living in China. Christopher Ahn says Kim Han Sol, who was viewed as a potential heir and threat to the North Korean throne, was terrified.

Chris Ahn: He got a call from North Korea that there were people coming to execute him or assassinate him. And that when he looked out the window, that all of his security disappeared. And he didn't know who to turn to for help.'

He turned to Adrian Hong- the head of Cheollima- for help. Hong then turned to Christopher Ahn, the former Marine, to pull off the rescue.

Chris Ahn: He says, 'Can you fly to Taiwan and meet him there and keep him safe while, you know, we're, talk to different countries and try to figure out a place where he could, you know, apply for asylum?' I jumped on a plane, the last flight out, and uh, and I arrived in Taipei.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How did he know to look for you?

Chris Ahn: I told Adrian that, 'Tell him to look for a guy with a black t-shirt, uh a Dodger hat, and I'll be going by the name of Steve.' And so, when his flight arrived, I was standing by the gate. And I saw someone walking toward me. We locked eyes and he asked me, 'Are, are you Steve?' And I said, 'Yes. Don't worry. I got you.'

Sharyn Alfonsi: At that point, you know people may want to kill him. 

Chris Ahn: Sure.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Were you nervous?

Chris Ahn: I think it would be really weird if I wasn't nervous.

Christopher Ahn says he hid Kim Han Sol - the scared nephew of the North Korean dictator - in a private room at the airport for 36 hours until a safe haven could be found for him…

Chris Ahn: These two people show up. And they said that they were from the CIA. They want to talk to Han Sol and…

Sharyn Alfonsi: But they know it's Han Sol that's in there?

Chris Ahn: Correct. So until I got confirmation that they were actually from the CIA, I tried to keep some distance between the two. Soon after, Adrian confirmed that they were from the CIA. And so after that, I felt relieved. 

He says Adrian Hong then instructed him to buy a plane ticket for Kim Han Sol to Amsterdam.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You're booking tickets for him at this point?

Chris Ahn: Yeah.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The CIA is not doing that?

Chris Ahn: No. No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did that strike you as strange?

Chris Ahn: This whole thing is strange!

Before Kim Han Sol departed, Christopher Ahn asked him if he would record a video…

Chris Ahn: And so I kinda told him, 'Hey, I know this is kinda weird. But um do you mind just kind of just acknowledging that we're here to help you. And he says, 'Okay.' And so in that little hotel room, you know, I pulled out my cracked screen iPhone six and uh took the video.

Kim Han Sol video: We're very grateful to uh Adrian for his help. Um Adrian and Steve for his help and um, we hope uh, we hope this gets better soon. Yeah. 

The video was seen around the world…but Kim Han Sol hasn't been seen since. Ahn says a CIA officer escorted Kim Han Sol on to the flight….but he never showed up in the Amsterdam arrivals hall. it's believed he was whisked away to a life in protective custody.

Naeun Rim: When you have been associated with helping-- someone who was once considered potentially the heir apparent of North Korea, just disappear and find safety. Um you're not just a target, you're a top five target.

Naeun Rim 60 Minutes

Naeun Rim is Christopher Ahn's attorney. She says the FBI has also told her Ahn may be killed if he leaves the United States.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Who in the U.S. can stop the extradition to Spain?

Naeun Rim: Antony Blinken can stop it. Ultimately President Joe Biden can stop it. In other administrations, the secretary of state and the president can stop this. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: But historically they haven't.

Naeun Rim: There are almost no instances where the State Department has stepped in and stopped an extradition. But there are also no cases where the extradition request is actually being driven by North Korea, a country that the United States does not have diplomatic ties with for a reason.

60 minutes requested interviews with the State Department, the Justice Department and the FBI to discuss Christopher Ahn's potential extradition to Spain. all declined to be interviewed.

We also reached out to Spanish officials…they also declined to speak to us. 

But last year while filming outside the North Korean embassy in Madrid….we unexpectedly were confronted by the man who was Cheollima's main point of contact for the alleged fake kidnapping…. So Yun Sok.

We wanted to interview him. He wanted us arrested. Neither side got its wish.

Last year the North Korean government released a statement blasting the United States over the embassy incident…and singled out one person by name: Christopher Ahn…the North Koreans called him "a felon who deserves severe punishment from every aspect…"

Chris Ahn: North Korea has a history. The assassination that they did in Malaysia wasn't their first one. And they had been publicly embarrassed with what happened in Spain. They had been publicly embarrassed with me helping rescue Han Sol. And when they are embarrassed, they respond fiercely. So why wouldn't I believe the FBI when they tell me that North Korea's trying to kill me?

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich and Jacqueline Williams. Associate producer, Emily Cameron. Broadcast associate, Erin DuCharme and Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Matthew Lev.


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