A masked crusader – a mysterious group called “Cheollima Civil Defense” (CCD) – is challenging North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s nearly three-quarters of a century family rule.

Cheollima is a name North Koreans easily recognize – a mythical flying horse often used for propaganda purposes. Its image appears on postage stamps and coins. A bronze statue of the horse is found in downtown Pyongyang.

CCD lurks in the shadows of anonymity and international intrigue. It first emerged two years ago, following an extrajudicial act of violence by Kim. CCD quickly countered the dictator’s next perceived move, remaining relatively quiet – until this month.

CCD used an important date in Korean history – the “March 1 Movement” of 1919 launching a nationwide uprising against Japanese rule – to do something never before done. On the Movement’s 100th anniversary, CCD made a claim not setting well with Kim, undoubtedly triggering his intelligence agency into action to unmask, locate and neutralize the group.

CCD emerged after Kim’s assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in February 2017. Kim had his half-brother killed because Jong-nam was living in China, and the dictator feared he was being groomed as his possible successor since relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were not particularly good. Kim ordered the hit be done outside China.

Accordingly, at the Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia, awaiting a flight connection, two women accosted Kim Jong-nam, rubbing a substance in his face. That substance, unknown to the women innocently recruited to participate in what they thought was a joke, turned out to be a deadly VX nerve agent. Nam quickly fell ill and died. Before the real North Korean perpetrators of the crime could be caught, however, they fled to Pyongyang.

CCD became concerned Kim would next target his nephew – Jong-nam’s son, Kim Han-sol – since he was in the Kim family’s succession line. Therefore, the group moved quickly to prevent that, rescuing Han-sol, his sister and mother and relocating them from Macau to an undisclosed location.

In the aftermath of Jong-nam’s death, North Korea, unsurprisingly, denied the victim was Kim’s half-brother or that an assassination had even occurred. However, a 40-second video posted of Han-sol, expressing gratitude to his rescuers shortly after his father’s death, put the lie to North Korea’s denial.

The video bore the caption, “To the people of North Korea.” While this unprecedented move did not have much impact as few North Koreans had access to the Internet, the video’s real intent most likely was to taunt Kim.

But commemorating the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Movement, CCD issued a statement this month containing two declarations – one much more eye-catching than the other.

Generating less attention was CCD’s name change, apparently believing a clearer message of its goal was needed. Therefore, its new name became “Free Joseon,” meaning “a Free Korea.”

But the big attention-gainer was Joseon’s claim it was establishing itself as North Korea’s “legitimate interim government” – i.e., a “government-in-exile.” It vowed to smash the “great evil” regime in Pyongyang – a clear statement undermining the legitimacy of the Kim family’s rule. It proclaimed, “Joseon must and shall be free. Arise! Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!”

Needless to say, this story did not make North Korea’s government-controlled television “fake” news networks. But Joseon’s audaciousness most surely left Kim seething.

There is reason for Kim to be concerned. While both Kim and Kim Jong-nam had different mothers, they had the same father. And, as the latter was the elder brother, he should have “inherited” power. But their father apparently felt Jong-nam lacked the necessary ruthlessness, prepping the younger Kim for the position. Based on senior lineage, Han-sol really has a better claim to rule than does Kim. This gives Joseon leverage to claim it can place the “real” crown prince upon the throne.

Kim’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) is Pyongyang’s premier intelligence organization, responsible for clandestine operations abroad, such as the Kim assassination in Malaysia. Most assuredly, its resources are now being devoted to pursue the Joseon threat.

RGB is undoubtedly under intense pressure now due to a shocking raid conducted by Joseon in Madrid, Spain, days before the U.S./North Korea summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28. Joseon raided the North Korea embassy in full daylight, tying up personnel, stealing computers, cellphones and other items believed to hold a wealth of information on Pyongyang’s secretive dealings to bypass sanctions.

Joseon’s make-up remains unclear. Possibly the brainchild of North Korean defectors or South Korean dissidents, the latter is less likely as their President Moon Jae-in is foolishly committed to peaceful diplomacy no matter how threatening Kim’s demeanor.

Joseon’s timing may be good. A former North Korean dissident and now South Korean human rights activist just disclosed clandestine messages she receives from the North reflect anger over Kim returning home from the Hanoi summit empty-handed. This, after promising it would generate massive humanitarian aid. The messages call both Kim and Moon derogatory names, the latter as they believe he only facilitates Kim’s rule. They are supportive of President Trump.

In a 2012 interview given a Finnish news station by Kim Han-sol, now believed to be in his early 20s, he appeared eloquent and knowledgeable, unhesitant to call Kim a “dictator.” Educated in international schools in Macau and Bosnia, Han-sol’s exposure to a Libyan roommate gave him insights into dethroning a brutal leader.

A comment young Kim made during his interview revealed a persona much different from his uncle’s, desiring to get involved in humanitarian projects. He added, “I’ve always dreamed that one day I will go back (to North Korea) and make things better and make it easier for the people there.”

While nice to accept Kim Han-sol’s dream as reality, we cannot forget, prior to Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy to power, it was believed his Western education would bring the dawn of a new era of hope to the people of North Korea. It clearly did not.

Kim’s main interest now is in unmasking the masked crusader, removing it as a threat to his continuing brutal rule.

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