This election season, spare a moment to remember the bravest Korean you’ve never heard of.
On October 10, Dr. Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector in history, passed away at his home in Seoul. Hwang apparently died of natural causes, a surprising fate for a man who was literally hunted to the last day of his life by the North Korean regime. In April, two North Korean agents were arrested in Seoul before they could carry out their mission to assassinate Hwang, and on October 20, the existence of yet another assassin, Lee Dong-Sam, was announced by the South Korean government.
Hwang’s funeral, on October 14, was attended by a virtual Who’s Who of South Korean society, including former President Kim Young-Sam, former Grand National Party leader Chung Mong-Joon, former presidential candidate and Liberty Forward Party leader Lee Hoi-Chang, former Chosun Ilbo Chief Editor Ryu Geun-Il, and many other journalists, defectors, and North Korean human rights activists. The elderly scholar was buried in a special part of Daejeon National Cemetery reserved for extraordinary contributors to the Korean nation.
North Korea responded with its characteristic ugliness. The North Korea-controlled website Uriminzokkiri called Hwang a “filthy human being” and asserted that his death was a “punishment by heaven which clearly displays how miserable the last days of a traitor who betrays his country, people, and race, are.”
It was an ironic sendoff for perhaps the greatest intellectual North Korea has ever produced. Hwang served as president of Kim Il-Sung University; created the “Juche philosophy,” North Korea’s policy of radical self-sufficiency; personally taught Kim Jong-Il; served as chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature) for 11 years; and was at one time ranked 24th in the North Korean ruling hierarchy.
Hwang spent almost his entire career at the very heart of the DPRK regime, and knew most of its top members personally, many for decades. His familiarity with the Kim family was so great that he could precisely describe feuds and rivalries between different factions of the Kim clan. Hwang’s disillusionment with the North Korean system began in the 1980s, when he fell out of favor with Kim Il-Sung, partly due to his enthusiasm about China’s market-based economic reforms. In 1997, he walked into the South Korean embassy in Beijing, sending shock waves throughout Northeast Asia. The Washington Post likened his defection to “Joseph Goebbels defecting from Nazi Germany.”
Hwang’s flight to freedom came at a terrible cost: the imprisonment or death of his entire family, even distant relatives. His wife reportedly committed suicide. His daughter died under “mysterious circumstances.” And his other children and grandchildren were reportedly sent to concentration camps. Hwang’s motives for paying this appalling price were straightforward: patriotism and the fear of war. He loved his country, Korea, enough to want to see it entirely liberated from the depraved clutches of the Kim family; and in addition, felt duty-bound to warn South Korean leaders that the North had in no way given up its intention to conquer the South militarily.
Commentators have long found North Korea to be the most difficult Asian country to cover accurately, largely due to the deliberate opacity of the regime. This sheer lack of information has made dealing with the country far more difficult for foreign policymakers, and not just in the West (even Beijing has frequently been caught off guard by Pyongyang’s erratic behavior). This information vacuum made Hwang’s insights infinitely more valuable, which is why it is so shameful that the mainstream media in the West chose to either ignore him, or utterly misinterpret his testimony according to the writer’s own particular obsessions (e.g., Fred Kaplan of Slate’s disgraceful attempt to liken Hwang to Ahmad Chalabi, a metaphor with no factual basis whatsoever).
Actually, what Hwang had to say was extremely interesting. For example, Hwang had great insight into Kim Jong-Il’s personality, having known him since he was a high school student. The adolescent Kim, according to Hwang, was smart and curious, but also short-tempered, with a great desire for power, and did not “think deeply.”
As president of Kim Il-Sung University, Hwang continued to meet with Kim regularly, but noted his “extreme personality,” and “started to worry that he might ruin the country if he took over from his father.” This was in 1962, mind you, when South Korea was still mired in poverty, and starving peasants from mainland China frequently crossed the border into the then-more moderate DPRK to escape Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.”
Hwang’s opinion of the man who would become North Korea’s “Dear Leader” went downhill from there. After his defection, he wrote that Jong-Il “respects Hitler, aspiring to become a similar dictator and often uses the word ‘blitzkrieg.’” And in his last column for www.dailynk.com, a news site run by North Korean defectors, he said: “Kim Jong-Il is the worst kind of thief; a man who stole a whole country.”