Seoul May 2002

Gag Order

Why won't South Korea let North Korea's highest-level defector speak out?

In February of 1997 an elderly North Korean government official named Hwang Jong Yop walked into the South Korean embassy in Beijing and demanded political asylum. At the time, Hwang was the Secretary of North Korea's Workers' Party and a tutor to its reclusive leader, Kim Jong II. He also happened to be the highest-ranking official ever to have defected from North Korea. He was widely suspected of knowing about Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program and the power struggles rumored to be taking place at the top levels of North Korean leadership.

Given the generally close relationship between the United States and South Korea, Hwang's defection seemed to promise the United States unprecedented access to inside information about North Korea and Kim Jong Il—and indeed, after his defection Hwang said publicly that he wanted to share information with the United States. Surprisingly, however, South Korea has kept Hwang tightly confined and hidden away by agents of Section Five, the division of South Korea's intelligence agency that is charged with handling senior North Korean defectors. Hwang is rarely allowed to meet with foreigners, and even then he can do so only with minders present. Not long after arriving in Seoul he met with U.S. intelligence officials, but it's not clear that he feels comfortable talking openly about anything in the presence of South Korean agents. The meeting with U.S. officials yielded little new information. The South Korean government, responding to congressional invitations in recent years, has said that it will allow Hwang to fly to Washington and testify before Congress, possibly in formal hearings, but it has yet to act on its word. The reason for this, it seems, is a political struggle between the two allies over how to deal with North Korea—a struggle that has intensified in the aftermath of George Bush's labeling North Korea part of an axis of evil.

Some in Seoul and Washington attribute the muzzling of Hwang to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. They say that the President, who has put peaceful engagement with North Korea at the top of his political agenda, fears that Hwang's testimony would embarrass the North Koreans and encourage their isolationism. Others suggest that the ruling party in South Korea—and the President in particular—fear that Hwang is poised to unveil a list of South Korean politicians who have accepted money and support from the North. The President's allies, for their part, accuse politicians both at home and in Washington of trying to sabotage their overtures of peace to Pyongyang. A spokesman for the South Korean embassy, for example, cites the "potentially harmful effect [Hwang's] appearance in the U.S. might have on the political climate on the Korean peninsula."

No one doubts North Korea's ability to make trouble. It maintains a standing army of some 1.2 million men. Reportedly, it has developed a huge arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, and has the capability to build nuclear bombs, if it hasn't already done so. It has produced ballistic-missile technology that Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt are buying.

Despite hints of an opening of U.S.-North Korean relations during the twilight of the Clinton Administration, America's intelligence community remains remarkably ignorant about Kim Jong Il and his regime. His base of support is said to be deep and shallow. His health is said to be robust and weak. He has been characterized by some as a shrewd tactician and by others as a boozy Strangelovian. So little is known about him, in fact, that many U.S. officials until recently attributed his low profile to a debilitating stutter—a theory dashed in June of 2000, when Kim delivered a welcome address to Kim Dae Jung at the start of a historic summit in Pyongyang.

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