A North Korean escapee and U.S. citizen connected to a February break-in at the DPRK embassy in Madrid is a media-savvy and high-profile activist who previously worked with the Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) NGO, NK News understands.
A connection first reported by Spanish media in June, 24-year-old Cheol “Charles” Ryu is the third U.S. citizen to be publicly tied to the raid, which Spanish authorities alleged to be an illegal invasion involving “robbery with violence and intimidation” and torture.
According to ABC Spain, National High Court Judge José de la Mata issued the fifth international arrest warrant in the case last month, this time for Charles Ryu, who is described as having only been recently identified.
Ryu could now face extradition to Spain, where he and his accomplices in the Free Joseon “government-in-exile” organization face a litany of criminal charges for their role in the incident, and, under the country’s criminal code, could face up to ten years in prison if found guilty.
He is the second suspect in the case to be tied to the LiNK NGO: ringleader Adrian Hong, now on the run from U.S. authorities, founded the organization in 2006 though had since distanced himself from the group.
Ryu has in the past year became a high-profile advocate for human rights issues, speaking to media about his experiences fleeing the DPRK as a child and new life in the U.S.
In a statement to NK News, LiNK CEO Hannah Song said Ryu had “previously interned for our organization” but had then become involved in the Free Joseon group.
“While working with us, he was a genuinely passionate advocate for the North Korean people,” she said. “It appears that he was contacted by Adrian Hong and, unbeknownst to our organization, recruited to be involved in Free Joseon’s activities after leaving LiNK.”
“LiNK is not affiliated to Free Joseon and we have no knowledge of the group or their activities other than what has been reported in the media.”
An active user of social media, Ryu had as recently as January visited South Korea and was in March began crowd-funding for a documentary about his experiences.
He also appears to have continued to affiliate with LiNK, having been set to speak at the NGO’s chapter at UC Davis in May — an event that was later postponed.
“Charles officially ended his time at LiNK in November 2018,” Song, the LiNK CEO, said. “Some of the more recent events he may have been part of are organized by LiNK student clubs that act independently and book him directly, not through LiNK.”
In an interview with Now This News viewed up to 2.5 million times, Ryu said that he escaped North Korea twice, when he was 14 and 16, and that his mother had died of starvation when he was 11 years old.
He also said he was held in a detention center in North Korea for nine months, where he was ordered to carry out forced labor and later worked in a coal mine.
Following his escape, he resettled in the United States, later becoming a citizen there.
The same story was told in a recent op-ed written by an unnamed defector-member of the Free Joseon group asking Washington to “deny” the Spanish government’s requests for Ahn and Hong’s extradition, suggesting Ryu as a likely author or inspiration.
There is also evidence suggesting Ryu may have been the individual appearing in a redacted video released last month purporting to show one of the participants in the raid entering the grounds of the North Korean embassy in Madrid.
A U.S. Justice Department official declined to comment when asked for more details about Ryu’s case, or whether the U.S. would comply with Spain’s requests for his extradition.
North Korea has condemned the February raid, with a statement in March calling for Spanish authorities to carry out a full investigation into what they described as a “grave terrorist attack” and “breach of the state sovereignty.”
The Free Joseon group has denied allegations of assault, claiming the raid was non-violent and that they were invited into the embassy by the North Korean diplomats.
News of Ryu’s involvement follows the revelation earlier this week that a U.S. court had ordered that Christopher Ahn, a former U.S. marine believed to have led the embassy raid, to be released on bail.
Ahn — who the U.S. government has asked be held since his detention in April — must remain under house arrest pending further proceedings into his potential extradition to Spain.
At a hearing Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jean Rosenbluth was reported to have said she believed there was evidence to suggest that Ahn was being pursued by agents working for the North Korean government.
Ahn’s legal representation has also sought to make the case that his life would be put at risk should he be extradited to Spain.
His lawyer, Naeun Rim, told CNN this week that North Korean agents would be able to harm him were he detained there.
“There are people on the ground who are connected to the North Korean government, they can reach out to people in Spain if they want to commit a crime or harm somebody,” she said.
“The [North Korean] officials there are probably in touch with people in the underworld, in Spain, people who would have no trouble finding their way into a Spanish jail if Mr. Ahn were to be detained there.”
In addition to Hong, Ahn, and Charles Ryu, Spanish authorities have also named Sam Ryu and Wooram Lee as having been involved in the embassy break-in.
Additional reporting and editing by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: Charles Ryu’s Instagram