[News Focus] Free Joseon aims to overthrow Kim dynasty

By Park Han-na

Self-proclaimed North Korean government-in- exile’s success hinges on whether it can rally people inside the country

  • Published : Apr 2, 2019 - 19:27
  • Updated : Apr 3, 2019 - 11:37

(Free Joseon)
The emergence of a North Korea dissident group has raised questions as to whether it could grow into a movement capable of serving as a catalyst to oust the Kim dynasty that has been ruling North Korea for more than 70 years.

The Cheollima Civil Defense’s operations captured the attention -- and the imagination -- of the public when it proclaimed the birth of North Korea’s provisional government-in-exile and changed its name to Free Joseon on March 1. 

A screenshot of a video published on March 20 by Free Joseon shows a man removing portraits of North Korean leaders from the wall. (YouTube)

Free Joseon is viewed as the first organization to openly challenge the leadership of North Korea, a country long notorious for human rights abuses against its own people.

While calling for the North Korean diaspora around the world to join its revolution to defy the oppressors and seek freedom, the group targeted North Korean embassies that it has labeled “launchpads for global cyber attacks, assassinations, kidnappings and hostage taking.”

Before claiming responsibility for the break-in and robbery at the North Korean Embassy in Spanish capital Madrid that took place in February, the group was known as a mysterious network helping defectors.

In that month, the group significantly expanded the scale of its operations from spraying graffiti of anti-North Korea slogans on the walls of the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to the raid of the North Korea Embassy in Madrid, which has been described as a “grave terrorist attack” by the North.

The group now claims it has “bigger tasks ahead.”

Retracing the course of the life of Adrian Hong, a human rights activist identified by a Spanish court as the ringleader of the Madrid raid, provides a glimpse into what could be Free Joseon’s ultimate goal.

Hong seems to have been inspired by Libya, which ousted Dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy uprising in the Middle East and North Africa that challenged authoritarian regimes in the region.

Hong even went to Libya to study the revolt, according to the Associated Press.

“I consider the Arab Spring a dress rehearsal for North Korea,” Hong told Abu Dhabi’s the National newspaper in 2011.

A video of the self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohammed al-Bouazizi sparked the popular uprising, and similarly Free Joseon has adopted video clips to advocate regime change.

The anti-North Korean group’s YouTube channel amassed more than 2.5 million views with just three videos, including its first in 2017 featuring Kim Han-sol, the son of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who was killed at a Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.

The latest video, titled “In our Homeland” shows a man smashing portraits of national founder Kim Il-sung and second-generation Dictator Kim Jong-il.

A screenshot of a video published on March 20 by Free Joseon shows a man removing portraits of North Korean leaders from the wall. (YouTube)

Some 200,000 North Korean defectors around the world who are able to access YouTube know that desecrating images of the former leaders is an outrageous crime, according to Ko Young-hwan, the first North Korean diplomat to defect from the North.

“For people living in a normal state, what they (Free Joseon) did was not a surprising action, but for North Koreans, it’s something they cannot even imagine,” he said.

Some analysts are skeptical about outside forces like Free Joseon having a direct impact on the Kim regime or empowering people living in the country for an uprising.

“Historically, liberalization movements including the Arab Spring have been triggered by people inside a country who were dissatisfied with the regime, not by outsiders or those who have already defected from the regime,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

The identities of Free Joseon members were partly revealed in the wake of the raid of North Korea’s Madrid embassy, including a US national and South Korean, among others.

It has not yet been confirmed whether anyone within North Korea is part of the group. 

The possibility that the group’s abrupt actions could lead to fundamental changes for North Korean society remains questionable, said Lee Kwang-baek, president of Unification Media Group.

Lee said the late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect to the South to date, had been asked to head a government-in-exile several times, but he turned down the requests, stressing the importance of a spontaneous, grassroots efforts.

By Park Han-na (