Dr. Hwang Jang-Yop, Highest Ranking North Korean Defector, Dead at 87

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."

Hwang also brought information of significant military and strategic value. For example, he said, contradicting conventional wisdom, that the North's likely strategy in the event of war would involve a threat to attack Japan:

The North believes they can win a war and if the U.S. intervenes they have a plan to attack and destroy Japan. The strategy is to occupy South Korea in a "blitzkrieg" maneuver and then threaten the U.S. with the annihilation of Japan.

One can only shudder when contemplating how the Obama administration might respond to such a ruthless gambit. In addition, Hwang corroborated, from his own personal knowledge, earlier reports that Pakistan reached an agreement with North Korea to supply the North with fissile material (highly enriched uranium) in exchange for missile technology.

Hwang's transition to a life of freedom in South Korea was not without problems. He was awarded a government post, then lost it, largely because his hardline stance against the North did not sit well with the liberal Kim Dae-Jung administration, which at the time was pursuing the "Sunshine Policy" of attempted reconciliation with the DPRK. Although Hwang found many sympathizers in the ROK, he was also appalled by the prevalence of gullible apologists for the Kim regime in South Korean society, including radical left-wing student groups which essentially act as tools of the North. (Universities in the ROK are dominated by left-wing academics whose favorite sport is to demonize the U.S., while studiously ignoring the infinitely greater crimes of the Kim family -- a situation that will sound all too familiar to American readers.)

Nevertheless, Dr. Hwang, a philosopher in the true sense, devoted his final years to a serious examination of the great problems facing the Korean nation. He founded an NGO, the Committee for Democratization of North Korea, dedicated to achieving freedom for the 23 million people trapped in the North. He wrote constantly and held frequent press conferences where he assessed developments, such as Kim Jong-Il's recent visits to China and the apparent coronation of Kim Jong-Eun.

His accomplishments over the last decade were significant. For example, his memoir, released in 2006, is a simultaneously engrossing and chilling look at life inside the very highest levels of the North Korean regime. He was a frequent contributor to www.dailynk.com, which has become an unprecedented source of accurate information about developments inside North Korea. Significantly, information has begun to flow in the other direction, from the burgeoning exile network back into the North. This will, in time, undermine the web of deception which underlies the Kim dictatorship.

Hwang Jang-Yop was a great man, one who literally sacrificed everything for the chance to free the long-suffering North Korean people. His deeply felt  advocacy for freedom, democracy, and human rights was only made more convincing by the fact that he, like George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and many others, changed sides. Although he fell short of his ultimate goal of seeing the Kim dictatorship ended during his lifetime, we can best honor his memory by following his advice to remain vigilant against North Korean aggression, maintaining our alliance with South Korea, and taking every opportunity to widen the cracks in the North Korean system. Americans would do well to take heed of the warning Hwang issued in 2005:

Internationally, politicians and intellectuals of the victorious countries [in the Cold War] including the U.S have started to think that the free world [and its] democratic system would prevail forever and have neglected the fight against dictatorships. They have underestimated the power of dictatorships and the anti-democratic forces, thinking that they can handle any problems with ease. ... Democracy has not completed its mission yet. ... It is a big mistake to consider that [the] democratic era has been achieved already.

Finally, just for a moment, consider the fact that the DPRK regime murdered or imprisoned Dr. Hwang's entire family simply because he decided to leave. If a government that would do this cannot be called "evil," then the word has no meaning. Indeed, the Kim family's crimes are so numerous, so diverse, and so monstrous -- self-inflicted famine, the detention and killing of millions, forced abortions on North Korean women repatriated from China, the persecution of religion, especially Christianity (nauseatingly, Christians in North Korea are forced to worship images of the Kims), assassinating enemies abroad, blowing up airliners, kidnapping Japanese schoolchildren, counterfeiting foreign currency, selling narcotics, the list is endless. It would be more appropriate to regard the country as the world's largest organized-crime base than to treat it as a legitimate nation-state. Indeed, considering its tragicomic hereditary succession, North Korea increasingly resembles a bizarre hybrid of monarchy and mafia more than it does a Soviet-style Communist system.

The truth is that the Kim family are scum. Why mince words? They have no more right to control half of Korea than Hitler had to control Austria, or the USSR had to control Eastern Europe. But the free world still awaits the leader bold enough to imagine that their odious regime could be removed rather than accommodated.

Where is Ronald Reagan when we need him?