North Korea is history’s most perfected totalitarian state. Ruled by a deified dynastic dictatorship whose record of crimes against humanity is unparalleled, according to the U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights, no organized resistance against the regime has been reported. Until now.
A mysterious group called Free Joseon _ or Free North Korea _ has broken Pyongyang’s seven-decades-long record of untouchability and trampled on its greatest taboo: The “Supreme Dignity” Kim Jong Un must never be desecrated.
In February, members of the group infiltrated the North Korean Embassy in Madrid and got away with computers, thumb drives, hard disks and a cellphone. They later shared the booty with the FBI.
But now the group and its defiant message are threatened by an unlikely source _ the United States. Federal authorities, in compliance with Spain’s request to extradite the suspects in the Madrid case, last week arrested one of the suspects in Los Angeles, an American-born former U.S. Marine, and raided the apartment of the organization’s leader, who is in hiding from U.S. authorities and North Korean hit squads. Both men are of Korean descent.
It is within the Spanish court’s jurisdiction to seek to hold accountable anyone who broke into an embassy on its soil. However, North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism that has shown few qualms about attempting extrajudicial killings of defectors and other “enemies of the state,” even on foreign soil. Last month, when Spain’s high court disclosed the names of the embassy suspects, it endangered the activists and their families.
U.S. authorities have filed a criminal complaint alleging the dissidents used force and abused embassy staff during the Madrid action. Free Joseon denies the charges. For the U.S. to accept what is essentially a North Korean version of the events is to effectively defend the Kim regime. It sends the message to Pyongyang that its egregious crimes lie beyond the concern of the world’s presumptive champion of freedom and democracy.
The U.S. must not do Kim’s bidding. Our extradition treaty with Spain provides for a refusal to extradite if we regard the offense in question as political. The North Korean Embassy breach surely was that, and the U.S. should seek to protect the dissidents rather than hand them over to Spain.
Free Joseon’s stance against the North Korean government is clear. It announced itself under the name Cheollima Civil Defense in 2017, taking credit for spiriting away to safety the surviving family members of Kim Jong Nam, the paternal half-brother of Kim Jong Un, who was killed in public at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in February 2017.
On March 1 of this year, the centennial of the Korean independence movement against Japanese colonial rule, Free Joseon proclaimed itself the provisional government of the north, dedicated to abolishing Kim Jong Un’s tyranny, which it called “a stain on the very soul of humanity.” The group released a video clip of a woman in traditional Korean garb reading the declaration in the heart of Seoul. Aptly, she spoke with a North Korean accent.
In mid-March the group spray- painted its name, symbol and the words “We shall rise” on the wall of the North Korean Embassy in Malaysia, just hours before the Malaysian court pardoned one of the two assailants in Kim Jong Nam’s killing. A few days later, it released a video clip of a man smashing framed pictures of Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
The shock effect of the video on the North Korean people cannot be overstated. Portraits of the ruling family are ubiquitous in North Korea, and all are told to protect the pictures with their lives. To deface the images is an unthinkable crime in the cult-dictated, conformity-imposed surveillance state. The video would prompt at once horror and catharsis in average North Koreans.
Free Joseon is a textbook resistance movement, using asymmetric and psychological warfare. Against a state that employs a powerful web of security forces and a cruel penal system to oppress its own people, low-level asymmetric tactics are the only means available. A $20 investment in spray paint can embarrass Pyongyang’s massive security apparatus. Turning over to authorities computers stolen from the Madrid embassy signals that Free Joseon isn’t a criminal enterprise in the usual sense.
In the dystopia of George Orwell’s novel “1984,” “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s dystopia turns some of that creed around, but the surreal contradictions remain: The past 66 years of de facto peace is framed as continual war, slavery is freedom, and, yes, the people’s ignorance is the state’s strength.
Orwell’s satire stopped short of intimating hope of resistance. But Free Joseon, in breaking the North Korea taboo, has reaffirmed a crucial tenet of liberalism: To stand up to tyranny in the name of freedom is not only not a crime, but also a right and duty. The United States should not quash this hallowed principle.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.