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.
All this ought to be of serious interest to a Bush administration still tilting toward Clintonesque attempts to contain and appease North Korea's Kim. It's a signal improvement that Hwang finally got his week in Washington. The big question, not yet clear, is how much of his message registered before he was flown back to Seoul.
It is of course prudent to weigh the words of defectors, to question their memories and motives. Hwang was derided, perhaps unintentionally, in a New York Times article heralding his trip, which described him as someone who "proudly clings to his status as North Korea's highest-ranking defector" (as if he had a choice). An article on Slate denounced him as a would-be Ahmad Chalabi (as if opposing monstrous tyranny were a fault). And everything Hwang had to say bumps up against a White House trying to defer any confrontation till after the 2004 election, and a State Department still prone to assume that signing paper agreements with Pyongyang, Clinton-style, will somehow persuade Kim to give up his deep passion for plutonium.
In sorting all this out, it would be a big help to hear firsthand from a lot more North Korean defectors. During Hwang's week in Washington, I got a taste of what that could be like, at a breakfast hosted by former congressional staffer and North Korea expert Chuck Downs at his home. Hwang was not there, but three North Korean defectors who work with Hwang in Seoul and who traveled with him dropped by, with time to spare. Over coffee and cakes, these three relaxed enough to spend four hours chatting, with the help of an interpreter, about their lives in North Korea, and why and how they escaped.
One of them, Kim Seong Min, a dapper writer who once cranked out odes glorifying Kim Jong Il, and who defected in 1996, explained that for five years he listened in secret to South Korean radio broadcasts--during the pre-sunshine era. This information from outside, plus seeing the bodies of famine victims stacked 10-deep, like cordwood, covered with lice, at North Korean railroad stations in the mid-1990s, persuaded him to try to escape. He faced a terrible, risky journey via China; it took three years before he finally made it in 1999 to safety in South Korea. Kim Seong Min, like Hwang and the other two defectors at that breakfast, was definite that the root of the problem is Kim Jong Il: "He has to go."
Hearing directly from those who have escaped North Korea is rather different from nodding to the nuanced hum of diplomats discussing elaborately unworkable safety deals and six-way talks. It is certainly different from perusing the perfumed pages of Vanity Fair, where former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in the September 2003 issue, recalled her meeting three years ago in North Korea with Kim Jong Il--"an intelligent man, who knew what he wanted"--and yearned for another peace deal with Pyongyang.
Senator Brownback has been mustering support for a bill that would make it easier for North Korean escapees to come to this country, instead of consigning almost all to the smothering embrace of Seoul. And Rep. Cox has issued a public invitation to Hwang to come back soon and stay longer, something a number of Hwang's contacts here say he'd like to do. This leaves us with the question of why the Bush administration--which so aptly named Kim a charter member of the axis of evil--has left to a few members of Congress and a private citizen the matter of wrestling for years to give Americans a chance to hear from those who best know North Korea. In this, the United States itself has been a hermit kingdom. It's time to fix that.
Claudia Rosett is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute and a columnist for OpinionJournal.com.