Six years ago, human rights activist Adrian Hong commanded the stage at a TEDGlobal event in Scotland.
As a guest host, the 27-year-old Yale graduate moderated a group discussion on “Forces of Change” highlighting what he called “the strong movements, energies and people that are driving major shifts in the world, particularly in Africa and Asia.”
Identified as “advisor and strategist,” Hong appears in a June 2013 TED video with North Korean defector Joseph Kim that has been viewed 2.3 million times.
Today, Hong, also known as Adrian Hong Chang, is an international fugitive, sought by Spanish authorities who say he played a leading role in a brazen daytime attack on the North Korean Embassy in Madrid in February.
According to El Pais, the leading newspaper of Spain,
Investigators believe that the intruders were looking for “sensitive information regarding North Korea’s nuclear and arms program” just days ahead of the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, which ended abruptly without a deal.
A warrant issued by Spain’s High Court, charges ten men, allegedly led by Hong, with burglary, false imprisonment, assault, document forgery, threats and robbery. The men reportedly belong to a group known as Cheollima Civil Defense, also known as Free Choseon, which opposes the North Korean government.
One American allegedly involved in the attack, ex-Marine Christopher Ahn, was arrested in Los Angeles last week.
The Washington Post in March reported that Hong fled Spain after the attack and returned to the United States where he contacted the FBI and offered to share the stolen information.
A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government “had nothing to do” with the break-in.
The TED Talks press office did not respond to request for comment about Chang’s status with the organization.
According to his published writings and public news reports, Adrian Hong Chang has been an outspoken advocate of overthrowing the government of Kim Jong Un for at least a decade.
In a December 2008 New York Times opinion piece, Hong spurned his previous hesitance to call for regime change in the totalitarian North.
“We must now rid ourselves of the delusion that we can bring about real change without real sacrifice,” he said.
In a December 2011 piece for Foreign Policy, Hong declared it was “time to topple the criminal government in Pyongyang.”
“The very progress of our global civilisation is for naught if we continue to let the very idea of North Korea exist,” he said.
A 2012 book, Escape from North Korea, recounts that Hong was arrested in China for helping people flee the country, but was freed after intervention by the U.S. government.
According to an NPR report
During one operation, Hong and six North Koreans were arrested in China. He was able to get diplomatic assistance and only spent a week or two in jail. The North Koreans had a more difficult time, but after the U.S. applied pressure, the Chinese government let them go to South Korea.
A 2013 capsule biography on the TED site says Hong
seeks to empower citizens and help create responsive, smarter organizations all over the world. Hong advises a number of city, state and national governments and agencies on strategic policy matters.
Recent Spanish and Korean news reports have linked Hong to the CIA.
El Pais, liberal daily in Madrid, reported last month that Spanish authorities queried the CIA about Hong and found the answers “unconvincing.”
Chosun Ilbo, a conservative daily in Seoul, reported earlier this month that Hong “signed a consulting contract with the U.S. government” in 2011 and “went into Libya after the ouster of former leader Muammar Gaddafi to support the creation of an interim government there. His consulting work often involved the CIA.”
A speaker’s biography on the TED Talks site says Hong “founded and curated the TEDxTripoli conference in 2012 after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.”
A report in the Washington Post quoted “People familiar with the incident” saying Free Choseon “did not act in coordination with any governments.”
The unnamed sources said that “U.S. intelligence agencies would have been especially reluctant to be involved, given the sensitive timing and brazen nature of the mission.”
The Spanish Embassy in Washington said it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
In 2013 Hong told the TED audience:
“Part of the beauty and magic of TED is that there is something for everyone — and often the talks and speakers we least expect to resonate with our personal interests spark thoughts, insights and inspiration in ways rather unexpected and often profound.”
WATCH: TED Talk hosted by Adrian Hong (who appears around 11:00)