Top North Korean Defector Briefs US on Secretive Regime

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The most senior government official to defect from North Korea is on a long-anticipated visit to the United States, where administration officials are hopeful he will give them some insight on the mindset of the world's most closed regime.

Some Korean human rights activists would like to see Hwang Jang-yop set up some type of government-in-exile in the U.S., but the 80-year-old former secretary of North Korea's ruling Worker's Party has played down the speculation.

Before leaving South Korea, Hwang said there was no truth to the rumor that he may stay in the U.S. to campaign against Kim Jong-il, as he had found his "mother country" and intended to stay there.

Hwang, who defected to South Korea six years ago while on an official trip to Beijing, has been trying to visit the U.S. for several years.

Previous attempts were blocked by Seoul, which was anxious not to upset its Stalinist neighbor.

The South Koreans made it so difficult for Hwang to travel that Republican Congressman Christopher Cox (Calif.) asked Secretary of State Colin Powell almost two years ago to intervene.

Cox, the chairman of the House Policy Committee, told Powell in a Dec. 2001 letter that Seoul's ambassador to the U.S. had said the defector could not speak directly to U.S. decision-makers because of "fears that Hwang's testimony will embarrass and anger North Korea's dictator, and could therefore derail North-South talks."

The government of former President Kim Dae-jung initiated a "sunshine" policy of reconciliation with the North.

After current President Roh Moo-hyun took office early this year, steps were taken to enable Hwang to travel to Washington, where he has had a longstanding invitation by the Defense Forum Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Even though the South Koreans had lifted the travel restrictions, they were still keeping a tight lid on his movements, it was alleged Wednesday.

Douglas Shin, a Los Angeles-based Korean pastor and political activist, said from Washington that Hwang was being so tightly guarded by South Korean embassy officials, that even some of his "close confidantes" from Korea were unable to get access to him.

Shin and fellow activist Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who was expelled from North Korea and now campaigns on human rights issues, have both been blocked from seeing Hwang, he said.

Both men have run afoul of South Korean authorities because of their high-profile campaigns aimed at drawing attention to the plight of ordinary North Koreans.

They and other activists do not hide their hope that Kim Jong-il's regime will collapse, and they see Hwang as a possible figure to set up a government-in-exile in preparation.

At a sensitive time, amid hopes that another round of six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear ambitions may be held soon in China, Shin suggested Wednesday that the U.S. government was collaborating with the South Koreans to keep Hwang under wraps.

"I think there's a tacit agreement with the State Department or whatever entity is cooperating with the South Korean government" to keep him "on a short leash," he said.

"He's been in town for two or three days, but I haven't been able to meet him," said Vollertsen, who has met with Hwang in Seoul.

The German said he had been blocked at Hwang's hotel, as too had other Korean activists.

"It's crazy," he said. "This is a free country - we are shocked."

Important meetings

An official at the South Korean Embassy's political affairs office confirmed that embassy officials were accompanying Hwang "throughout his stay."

The U.S. government had provided a security detail, which was working together with the embassy staff, he said, adding he had heard of no complaints about access to Hwang.

A State Department spokeswoman responded to queries by saying the department's bureau of diplomatic security was providing security for Hwang " in coordination with local security officials."

She said she could not comment on allegations that he was unable to move freely.

Hwang's official schedule continues, meanwhile.

A spokeswoman for Cox said the congressman had dinner with Hwang on Tuesday night, and the North Korean is scheduled to address the House Policy Committee on Thursday.

Hwang met Wednesday with James Kelly, the assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who is the administration's point man in talks with North Korea over its nuclear programs.

He also held talks with other officials dealing with nuclear and arms control issues, the State Department said in a statement.

"Mr. Hwang provided his thoughts and analysis on the situation in North Korea now and his views on regional issues, most notably North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons," it said.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing the meetings were considered important.

"It's an opportunity to talk to someone with very firsthand experience of the North Korean regime and what's going on up there," he said. "It adds to our understanding of the situation on the peninsula."

Birthday gift for the Dear Leader

Hwang was a senior member of the ruling bloc in Pyongyang. Apart from his senior post in the Worker's Party, he was also president of Kim Il-sung University and headed the Juche Ideology Research Institute. Juche (self-reliance) is North Korea's ruling ideology.

While on a visit to Japan and China in February 1997, he sought the opportunity to defect, according to an official government account of the event.

Hours before he was due to leave Beijing by train for Pyongyang, he and an aide went in a chauffer-driven car to a department store, on the pretext they wanted to buy Kim Jong-il a birthday gift.

At the store they gave the chauffer the slip and caught a taxi to the South Korean Embassy, where they applied for political asylum. After 34 days of negotiations, they were allowed to leave the country and flew to Seoul, via the Philippines.

Hwang told a press briefing several months later that he had been motivated by an aversion to Kim Jong-il's dictatorship, pangs of conscience for his role in it, and a desire to work for the unification of Korea.

When he fled his homeland, Hwang left behind a wife, son and three daughters. His wife was later said to have committed suicide, while one of his daughters died in what was reported to have been an accident, when she fell off a truck or train.

South Korean newspapers in recent days have reported that Hwang's son, Hwang Kyong-mo, recently had an "accident" while working at a quarry and was undergoing treatment in the capital. They speculated that the news may be intended as a threat to Hwang, ahead of his trip to the U.S.

At a press conference in Seoul in July 1997, Hwang said: "When I think of my family in the North it virtually breaks my heart. I feel guilty for leaving my family to possible death. My family's life is more important than my life, but the life of this nation is even more important than the lives of my family members."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow