Whether it’s the North Korean leader’s eccentric haircut, or his passion for basketball, Kim Jong-un’s quirks get more attention than the depravities of his police state. As Adrian Hong, a one-time Atlantic columnist, succinctly put it in 2014, the world has always been “more interested in the oddities of the oppressors than the torment of the oppressed”.Eight years ago, Hong – born in Mexico, but of Korean descent – was understandably impatient about the world’s inaction over North Korea. He wanted to act. Today, as a result, he has an international arrest warrant out in his name. In this mesmerising book, Bradley Hope, a former reporter on the The Wall Street Journal, expertly traces Hong’s path from softly-spoken, idealistic, Ivy League activist to incongruous global fugitive, against the backdrop of North Korea’s short yet turbulent history.In 2015, Hope helped break the story of one of the biggest money-laundering frauds in history, Malaysia’s 1MDB financial scandal. In 2020, he co-wrote a book on the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, unearthing a series of striking revelations about one of the world’s most dangerous men. Yet throughout those years, he kept his attention on Hong, a relatively young Yale graduate, the son of Christian missionaries, active in international human rights issues, whose chief claim to fame was selection to the inaugural class of TED Fellows.Like many others, Hope was impressed by Hong’s combination of drive, charisma, knowledge and high ideals. Hong even secured a White House photo op with the Obamas, so intent was he on raising the profile of his advocacy work. But Hope also sensed a naivety in the tech-savvy humanitarian with a fragmented identity and supersized ideas.By the time of that Atlantic article (a broadside against The Interview, the 2014 comedy film about Kim), Hong had already helped set up – and left – an NGO to assist North Korean refugees in passing safely through China, en route to freedom. It had led to him and others being briefly jailed in the country. The experience sharpened Hong’s focus, and within a few years he launched a covert group designed to destabilise the North Korean regime by targeting those of its diplomats who might consider defecting.
Hope made a point of staying in touch with the increasingly furtive Hong, but journalistically not much came of their long relationship. When Kim had his family tree pruned, killing his half-brother with a nerve agent, it was Hong and colleagues who helped get Kim Jong-nam’s family to safety in February 2017. But by now, though he was dropping broad hints that there was a secret aspect to his work, Hong rigidly compartmentalised his activities.It was only in 2019 that his double life unravelled. That February, Hope rang him after an unexplained raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid made international headlines. The reporter was keen to pick up any leads as to who might have been behind the assault, particularly as Donald Trump was preparing to fly to Hanoi for his second summit with Kim and the timing made it look like the mission was coordinated to place pressure on the Kim regime. Hong had no suggestions, but two months later, scrolling through Twitter, Hope learnt why. The US Marshals Service had uploaded a wanted poster with Adrian’s face, announced he was sought for his involvement, and declared he was “armed and dangerous”. Hope’s source was suddenly his quarry, though he couldn’t believe that his instinctively generous friend had morphed into a violent fugitive.The “raid” was in reality cover for a planned diplomatic defection that never materialised. This book tells as much of Hong’s story as can be pieced together in his absence (until today he has evaded not just Hope’s clutches but also the US government’s).Fascinatingly, it reveals enough to leave one largely sympathetic with its protagonist – a man still on the run.The Rebel and the Kingdom is published by John Murray at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books