North Korea is a revolutionary nation with the mission to liberate the entire Korean peninsula from foreign domination. The author Adrian Buzo named its ruling family the Guerrilla Dynasty. In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry determined that the 25 million Koreans living in the north are essentially slaves in a gulag state. Unexpectedly, there now appears to be a political rival to Pyongyang determined to overthrow the Guerrilla Dynasty and liberate the gulags.
The Choellima Civil Defense organization, now known as “Free Joseon,” (i.e., “free Korea”) has been quietly working behind the scenes for the past two years. Until last month, its best-known action was to protect Kim Han-sol, son of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam,after his father was assassinated in Malaysia by North Korean intelligence. However, the group recently made headlines by taking credit for a February attack on the North Korean Embassy in Madrid. Afterward, the group allegedly made contact with the FBI to turn over the computers, electronic media, and documents it acquired. These actions have raised hopes that Free Joseon may be the revolutionary organization that Koreans have longed for to end the despotic rule of mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime.
The sudden prominence of Free Joseon is undoubtedly an unconventional warfare practitioner’s dream; it is a nascent organization with the potential to “coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power.” I have written about potential unconventional warfare operations in North Korea. However, the excitement over this development must be tempered with an objective analysis of the organization, its legitimacy, its objectives, and how it can fit into the larger strategy of the South Korean-U.S. alliance. Unfortunately, when things are too good to be true, they usually are.
The best information we have about Free Joseon comes from its web site, which says the group consists of exiles from North Korea, apparently now in the U.S. Its declaration for a Free Joseon on page two describes its mission and intent, which is encapsulated by this line: “Down with Kim family rule! For our people, we rise up! Long live Free Joseon!” The group keeps its members secret, so we cannot vet them. (At least they practice some operational security).
One red flag is that some of the entries or parts of the entries on the Free Joseon website are written in high-level English rather than the more stilted English found when translated from Korean. This suggests a need for caution because Americans tend to be attracted to those who can speak English, enabling them to achieve outsized influence over American strategy and policy. We would do well to remember the impact of people like Syngman Rhee, Soong Mei-ling, a.k.a., “Madame Chiang,” the wife of Chaing Kai Shek, and most recently Ahmed Chalabi. Just because someone speaks English well does not mean their policies are sufficiently aligned with U.S. interests or their assumptions and assessments are correct.
A second red flag is the rudimentary psychological warfare that Free Joseon is practicing. It released a simplistic video of an alleged Korean from the North smashing framed photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong II as a way to delegitimize the regime. Psychological Operations professionals should evaluate this to determine if such a video will have the desired effect on target audiences in the North. It is possible that the actual target audience is not Koreans but those in the U.S. and west for the purpose of generating support.
One of Free Joseon’s most innovative activities is selling “visas” to a hypothetical free North Korea to raise funds for the organization. The ostensible utility of such visas is for future travel and conducting business in Free Joseon. This shows a level of sophistication, creativity, and the use of modern technology that does add an air of credibility.
Two other points should be considered. The Kim family regime is a master of deception. In addition to the Madrid operation possibly having been carried out by the North Korean security services, it is also possible that Free Joseon itself could be an elaborate deception as part of the regime’s political warfare strategy to test the response of the ROK and U.S. The ROK media had not reported on this for more than a month until a recent Chosun Ilbo newspaper article and there have been no statements from the ROK government.
We should also consider the possibility that a different foreign government or even a non-state actor wants to generate the perception that there is resistance to the Kim family regime. This would have the dual purpose of both putting pressures on the regime and inspiring actual resistance among the second-tier leadership and the general population. While the odds against either outcome are long, they are not outside the realm of possibility. Of course, the most important question whether this is purely deception or if Free Joseon is a viable resistance organization that could contribute to both of these objectives.
Finally, a pivotal question for the ROK/U.S. alliance whether this or any organization can contribute to an acceptable and durable political arrangement on the Korean peninsula that will serve, protect, and advance alliance interests. According to its declaration, Free Joseon wants to liberate the North from the oppression of the Kim family regime. However, it says nothing about unification on any of the five pages of its web site. Free Joseon calls on the U.S. and the international community to provide support; however, it does not ask for help from South Korea and instead decries the fact that Seoul did not come to the rescue of the North:
“For decades we hoped for rescue, while our families were held hostage. We watched powerful and wealthy nations. We gazed at the incredible feats of prosperity and developments to the south, hoping that their rising strength would make them sisters and brothers left behind by history.
But liberation did not come.”
It goes on to say this:
“This is the first time that we have established a free government in the United States, and we are in the process of establishing a free government.
We declare this entity as a legitimate representative of the Korean people of the north.”
While the description of “the Korean people of the north” implies that there are one Korean people who should be unified, the declaration is somewhat problematic in that it does not state unification as a goal. An organization that works at cross purposes to the alliance should not be supported. The U.S. cannot provide effective support to a resistance organization without access to South Korean territory and resources. The members of Free Joseon must be convinced that the only way that we will see an end to the nuclear and conventional threats in Korea and an end to the human rights abuses of the people of the North is through the establishment of a secure, stable, economically vibrant, non-nuclear peninsula with a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people. In short, this is a United Republic of Korea – or UROK.
Multiple media are reporting that the person allegedly behind Free Joseon and the North Korean Embassy operation in Madrid is Adrian Hong who was named in Spanish court documents petitioning for his extradition from the U.S. Hong is a long time North Korea activist who since 2008 has advocated for the overthrow of North Korea. However, he has no known ties to any resistance organization inside North Korea, and his vision of a future North Korea seems not to involve South Korea. Based on reporting about the operation it is highly unlikely that he received any support or training from professional intelligence agencies or advisors. If he is behind Free Joseon and the Madrid embassy raid, those who might be willing to support him, whether governments or private organizations and citizens, should do due diligence in vetting his motives and capabilities.
Free Joseon may be worthy of assessment and examination to determine if its interests are sufficiently aligned with the ROK/U.S. alliance. The excitement over the existence of this organization must be tempered with caution and objective analysis. Their stated goals are worthy, namely the elimination of the Kim family regime. Is it the organization that can “out-revolution” the Guerrilla Dynasty and Gulag State? Perhaps, but if so, there has to be agreement on the only long-term solution to the “Korea question” – a United Republic of Korea – and it may require a revolution in the North to defeat the revolutionary leadership of Kim and his Juche ideology to achieve this. If that is not an objective, then I would be hard-pressed to recommend support as much as I too long to see a Free Korea.
David Maxwell is a retired U.S, Army Special Forces Colonel and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He also contributes to FDD’s Center for Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter at @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.