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.

Conservative U.S. lawmakers—led by Representatives Christopher Cox and Henry Hyde and Senator Jesse Helms—say that South Korea's President is naively trusting of North Korea's good will, and that his trust threatens the security of South Korea and the 36,000 American soldiers stationed there. To keep Hwang from being heard, some officials in Washington say, Seoul has intentionally misrepresented his wishes. In December of 2000, for example, Suzanne Scholte, the president of the Defense Forum Foundation, based in Falls Church, Virginia, was in Seoul and asked to meet with Hwang, whom she had earlier invited to speak in the United States. Government officials told her that Hwang was too busy writing a book to meet people and did not want to travel to Washington until late 2001. Yet two months later Jesse Helms's office received a letter from Hwang, dated February 12, saying he wished to visit the United States immediately.

When Kim Dae Jung visited Washington in March of last year, Helms appealed directly to him to let Hwang travel to America. Fine, Kim said—as long as the U.S. government could guarantee Hwang's safety. Last July invitations from Helms, Hyde, Cox, and Scholte were taken to Seoul to be hand-delivered to Hwang, but the messengers were told that Hwang wasn't seeing visitors and had no desire to travel to America. But the next day Hwang faxed replies to all four invitations, agreeing to a visit. (Exactly how Hwang was able to access a fax machine is unclear.) The State Department gave assurances that Hwang would be well protected. South Korea then characterized the invitations as unofficial and said it would respond only to formal communiqués from the State Department. This past January the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Paul Kelly, wrote in a letter to Cox that "the Department will notify the government of the Republic of Korea that the [congressional] invitations represent formal requests to meet with members of Congress and we will encourage the South Korean government to permit Mr. Hwang ... to travel to the U.S."

Seoul once again said no. Hwang issued a statement saying he had no interest in traveling to the United States if his hosts there wanted only to hear about North Korea's weapons program, at the expense of other issues, among them Pyongyang's human-rights record. Rumors that the government had offered to build an institute in his name if he would just stay put—which Hwang denied—circulated in the South Korean press. Cox has since written to assure Hwang that U.S. lawmakers are interested in hearing everything he has to say about North Korea, to which Hwang has replied that he would like to visit the United States but is unable to, for "personal reasons."

Hard-liners in Seoul and Washington say they hope that the next President of South Korea, who is due to be elected later this year, will be tougher on North Korea and will encourage Hwang to speak out. In the meantime, however, Hwang is already showing signs of being worn down by life in the "free" world. Though tightly cloistered, he is occasionally able to spirit out writing that is then published in the press. "I lived many years in vain in North Korea trying to oppose the claim that there was only one absolute genius in the world," he wrote in a newspaper column last July. "But now in the South I am suffering headaches, as there are far too many people who profess they are geniuses."