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North Korean Defector Tells His Story In Washington - 2003-11-13

At a recent speech on Capitol Hill, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest ranking defector ever from North Korea, left little doubt about his dislike for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il: “I can state with decisiveness that my basic position is that Kim Jong Il should be eliminated, that his regime should be eliminated, and I hope that U.S. policy can reflect my wishes."

Six years after requesting asylum at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, Hwang Jang Yop is still a big story. Bodyguards stood on either side of the frail, 81-year old former North Korean communist party official as he addressed a group of 400 people. Behind the audience, 11 camera crews from around the world filmed his speech.

When he arrived in South Korea in 1997, Mr. Hwang was hailed as a man who had realized the error of his ways: the architect of North Korea's basic philosophy of self-reliance, or juche, who had become the country's fiercest critic.

Kongdan Oh, an Asian scholar at the Institute of Defense Analysis in Arlington, Virginia, says Mr. Hwang's defection was one of the most sensational: “The entire media and globe were shocked. Basically, it's like Thomas Jefferson defecting to the U.K. because the godfather of the juche left North Korea and entered South Korea, the archenemy. So he was immediately under protection to keep him from being attacked or assassinated by North Korean agents.”

The South Korean government says this security is necessary to protect Mr. Hwang, but Ms. Oh cites another reason for his enforced seclusion. When former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung declared his "Sunshine Policy" of accommodation and negotiation with North Korea in 1997, Mr. Hwang became something of a liability.

“Basically, South Korean policy was: we will not denounce Kim Jong Il as a dictatorial, bad ruler or criminal any more," she says. "He will be our partner in the reconciliation process, and now Hwang is becoming a pain in the neck because he was the one who has constantly demanded that Kim Jong Il be destroyed. So bizarre South Korean politics and reconciliation policy created unintended consequences; that is, Hwang will not be given full liberty to live his life as he wished it.”

Mr. Hwang's life as a defector has not been easy. He has lived under virtual house arrest in South Korea for the past six years, unable to meet people freely and protected by bodyguards at all times. When he finally did receive permission from the South Korean government to travel, he had to deal with veiled threats from the North. In an apparent move to discourage Mr. Hwang from talking too much on his trip to the United States, North Korean authorities let it be known that his eldest son had been injured in a car accident and is under medical observation in Pyongyang.

In Washington, Mr. Hwang's personal knowledge of North Korean leaders made him a highly sought after figure. He met with high-ranking Bush administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his relationships with late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il.

Don Oberdorfer is a former Washington Post correspondent, who interviewed Hwang Jang Yop for his book The Two Koreas. He says Mr. Hwang shed light on the father and son duo who are the only leaders the North Korean people have ever known: “Kim Il Sung was a gregarious, outgoing, self-confident figure who had been a guerrilla commander, was at ease with the military, was at ease with almost everybody, except for those people he deemed to be his enemies, and he got rid of them. Kim Jong Il is not an outgoing person; he is a person who doesn't like to mix it up with other people in the North Korean regime. He works by himself largely and gets reports on paper or in one-on-one meetings with other officials.”

In the United States, Hwang Jang Yop seemed to present two faces. In public meetings, he was more cautious about his prescription for regime change in North Korea, but in closed sessions with politicians and administration officials he filled in details. Chuck Downs, author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy, was at several private meetings with Mr. Hwang.

“What you find is he believes that it is possible to bring down the regime of Kim Jong Il, that there are individuals in Pyongyang who can be identified and can contribute to the downfall of the regime," he says. "And in a much more secure environment he said openly he thought there were only about 300 people in Pyongyang who actually owed true loyalty to Kim Jong Il, and the rest have varying degrees of understanding that there is something seriously wrong in North Korea that needs to be changed and that involves getting rid of Kim Jong Il and his regime.”

In his talks in Washington, Mr. Hwang was careful not to advocate war against North Korea. Instead, he outlined several steps to weaken the regime. He said China's lifeline of food and energy to North Korea must be cut, and outside powers, led by the United States, should keep up pressure on the country.

Mr. Hwang said he became disillusioned with North Korea in the late 1980s when Kim Il Sung appointed his son to lead the country, marking the first dynastic succession in the communist world. Then in the mid-1990s, he was further alienated by Kim Jong Il's distortion of the juche philosophy:

"Juche basically looks at who is the center of the nation and society. That's the main question juche seeks to address. Kim Jong Il said he himself was the very center of the nation and society. He is an extremely selfish person. On the other hand, I have always said the people are the center of the nation and society. A lot of people tell me that I had been the architect of juche and that I should be criticized because juche is used wrongly in North Korea. Perhaps I am deserving of some criticism; however, it does not change the fact that I have always felt that the center of the nation and society is the people, and that is the principle of democracy.”

Some Korea analysts wonder about Mr. Hwang's sincerity. They say he is a former communist now preaching the virtues of democracy as if he had always been a free-thinker. Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and long-time CIA official, says defectors are hard to judge and often have a private agenda. He believes it's best to withhold judgment until Mr. Hwang talks more openly about his experience in North Korea.

Kongdan Oh of the Institute of Defense Analysis also thinks there's more to come in the Hwang Jang Yop story. In her opinion, the North Korean defector has not been altogether candid in interviews, in part because constant surveillance in South Korea has made him cautious. Now that he is able to travel, he may have the opportunity to reveal more about his life in North Korea.