The Magazine

Mr. Hwang Goes to Washington

We should hear more from North Korean defectors.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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IN AMERICA, IT'S A SNAP to find exiles from most of the world's worst tyrannies. Just ask your taxi driver. For everyone from Iranians to Syrians, Chinese to Liberians to Uzbeks, America serves as the Grand Central Station of democratic dissent, a crossroads for outspoken dissidents from around the globe.

But not for North Koreans. Certainly not those who over the past decade have fled Kim Jong Il's famine-wracked, gulag-ridden, bomb-making Hermit Kingdom. Though hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have made a run for it, most of them into China, only a paltry 3,000 or so over the past decade have officially received asylum anywhere--and almost all have been shunted by the democratic world to South Korea. There, under the "sunshine" policy propounded in the late 1990s by former president Kim Dae Jung, and carried forward by his successor, President Roh Moo Hyun, they have been muffled.

Refugees and defectors who have the best insight into the workings of North Korea have been largely discouraged from telling the world anything that might offend Pyongyang, or derail the East Asian version of that perennial fiction known as the peace process--currently, in North Korea's case, called "the six-way talks," with a first round held this past August. Today, U.S. policy toward North Korea entails the pursuit of yet more six-way talks, in which the United States, South Korea, and Japan, in the company of China and Russia, propose to badger, bribe, and "contain" North Korea's Kim into dropping his nuclear bomb program--despite the abysmal failure of President Clinton's similar tack in the 1990s.

So, when North Korea's top-ranking defector, 80-year-old Hwang Jang Yop, made his maiden voyage from Seoul to Washington last week, there was a lot of nervous curiosity on all sides about what he might finally choose to say.

Hwang, who spent decades close to Kim Jong Il, defected to South Korea in February 1997. Since then he has lived under virtual house arrest in Seoul, so closely guarded--for his own safety, say South Korean officials--that few Americans had ever met him.

Prying Hwang from South Korea's grip was an ordeal involving six years of repeated efforts by Suzanne Scholte, president of the private Virginia-based Defense Forum Foundation, which arranged and hosted his trip. A sheaf of invitations sent by assorted congressmen in 2001 was not enough. It took forays to Seoul, months of palaver, and numerous false starts before South Korean and U.S. authorities agreed to let Hwang perform the simple act of walking onto a plane bound for Washington. When Hwang finally arrived here, on October 27, he was limited to one week on the ground, accompanied at almost every step by South Korean security agents--whether guards or minders, take your pick.

But once Hwang got to America, he spoke his mind. His unequivocal message as he made the rounds in Washington was that there should be no aid, no security agreement, no new deals: "To solve the problem of North Korea," he said, "it is required to abolish the Kim Jong Il dictatorship, and democratize North Korea."

This was Hwang's punchline as he went calling on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, senators Sam Brownback and John McCain, Rep. Chris Cox, and the House Policy Committee. This was the line that topped Hwang's prepared remarks at a press lunch on Capitol Hill, attended by some 350 people, to whom he explained, speaking through an interpreter, that in North Korea, Kim is the center of power, a despot who sees himself as "brilliant" because "he is getting all this aid without having to provide reciprocity." Deploring the starvation of millions under Kim, and warning, with regard to Kim's nuclear stash, that "people do not develop warheads to use them as toys," Hwang concluded: "There should be a severing of aid from outside. That should bring about the collapse of the North Korean regime." Specifically, he stressed that "China is the lifeline of North Korea," and "we need to sever the tie that China has with North Korea. Once that tie is severed, the collapse of North Korea would be sooner."

In a conversation with Rep. Cox, who managed to keep Hwang's guards out of the room, Hwang got even more specific. As Cox described it to me in a phone interview afterward, Hwang said that Kim commands the total loyalty of only about 300 people at the top of North Korea's pyramid of power. Below that there is widespread dissatisfaction. Hwang further suggested that if North Korea could be cut off from China, Kim would not start a war on his own.