[FOUNTAIN]The odyssey of Hwang Jang-yop“Honey, I will be back by February 12.” “Bye, take care of yourself.”
Hwang Jang-yop exchanged goodbyes with his wife for the last time in January 1997 in Pyeongyang. The couple met in Moscow and spent half a century sharing love and trust. While he tried not to show it, Mr. Hwang was going through unbearable pain. He knew he would never see his wife again, but in that poignant moment of farewell he had to assure her of his return.
As Mr. Hwang closed his eyes, he was reminded of his historical mistakes. He virtually gave birth to the juche ideology of self-reliance, which was subsequently used to strengthen Kim Jong-il’s regime.
“You will never be able to save your family. If you hesitate now, you will never get a chance to escape,” his inner voice whispered. “Then history will say in the future that there was no intellectual in North Korea who stood against the oppressive regime when the people were suffering through tremendous violence and irrationality.”
According to Mr. Hwang’s memoir, he went to the South Korean Consulate General in Beijing on Feb. 12, the day he promised his wife he would return home. That is how he became the highest North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea, surprising the world seven years ago.
Last week, Mr. Hwang spoke at a seminar hosted by the Korea Human Development Institute. As I listened to his lecture, I tried to see him as a person, suspending all ideological judgment. Then I found in him the characteristics of the intellectuals who gave up comfortable lives and stood against the authoritarian regimes in the 1970s.
Mr. Hwang emphasized that intellectuals’ actions, not criticisms, are more desperately needed to prevail over imminent evil. When he saw 2,000 highly skilled technicians dying of starvation in 1995, he was determined to work to oust the Kim Jong-il regime. He called his past service to Mr. Kim an original sin. “As an atonement, I would risk my life to bring democracy to North Korea,” he said.
Not everyone would willingly accept his idea that peace should be compromised for the democratization of North Korea. But it is also not an insightful observation to treat Mr. Hwang as a pro-American, anti-North demagogue representing the conservatives with ideologies from the Cold War era.
by Chun Young-gi
The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
More in Columns
Time to step up climate action
Finding our place
Diplomacy is about trust
More good than harm
For balanced information intake