[Viewpoint] Hwang deserved libertyThere have been many whistle-blowers and dissidents who lived in exile across the centuries. For them to earn their place in history books depended on what they exposed, what they risked to tell the truth about their societies or systems, and what they sacrificed for their testimonies. Highest-ranking North Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop, who recently died at 87 from a suspected heart attack, earned the epitaph of one of the most tragic whistle-blowers in history.
Novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was the first to disclose the brutalities of the communism. He resisted the Stalinist dictatorship through literary writings. He paid painfully for his outspokenness by serving eight years in labor camps and three years in political camps, after which he was painfully banished from the Soviet Union in 1974, leading to a life of exile in the United States.
The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 offered little comfort to the dissident writer, as the Nobel Peace Prize did little for anticommunist physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov five years later. The two were voices of conscience who alerted the world to the inhumane and corrupt nature of the Soviet regime until the system finally broke down under President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika movement.
British writer George Orwell was also a renowned critic of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. In younger days, he had been an avid advocate of egalitarian socialism after he confronted social injustice in his experience in Burma and while living among the poor and homeless in London and Paris. He was crushingly disillusioned by the avaricious and self-serving aspect of the totalitarians as a solider during the Spanish Civil War. He blew his whistle against the degeneration of socialism in his satirical novel “Animal Farm” and dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
Czech novelist Milan Kundera, known for his novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” exposed and condemned the totalitarian aspects of communism. Like many of his contemporaries, he started out as a fan of socialist theory, but later raged against the draconian and repressive nature of the communist system. He rebelled against Soviet communism in Czechoslovakia with his peer Vaclav Havel (later the Czech president) in 1968’s Prague Spring. He went into exile in France after the Soviet invasion and wrote “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” and other anticommunist satirical works.
Hwang Jang-yop joins the ranks of high-profile political exiles who spoke against oppressive communism regimes. The former architect of North Korea’s bedrock “Juche” (self-reliance) ideology and mentor to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il left his family in North Korea as he sought refuge in the Korean Embassy in Beijing in 1997 in hopes of saving North Koreans from a repressive regime. His wife killed herself, and his son was taken to a political prison camp. His defection was accompanied by enormous sacrifice and guilt. Before he left Pyongyang, he left a note for his wife asking her “never to forgive me. I hope we can meet again in another world.”
Solzhenitsyn and Kundera did not need to fear for their lives while in exile. Hwang did. North Korean poet and defector Jang Jin-sung has disclosed that Hwang always carried a poison pill in his suit pocket so he could take his own life before Kim Jong-il’s henchmen assassinated or kidnapped him. Both Solzhenitsyn and Kundera lived to return to their “freed” homelands. But Hwang died on the day when Pyongyang celebrated with hoopla the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party and the debut of its third-generation successor in the dynastic rule.
Solzhenitsyn, Kundera, and Orwell spoke against the abuses of authoritarian communism. But Hwang’s archenemy, the Pyongyang regime, embodies more than repression. The society is deeply committed to a personality cult. Soviet’s Stalinism was no match to the farcical blind worship of the Kim family.
Many dissidents still fight against oppression in exile. Somalia-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled Islamic communities in Africa for asylum in the Netherlands. She wrote the script for “Submission,” a film exposing the brutal treatment of females in Islamic societies. The film’s producer was assassinated with a knife, and the killer pinned a death threat against Hirsi Ali to his body. To compensate for the sacrifices and risks that whistle-blowers go through, they should be given as much liberty as they need. They should be heard so that cruelties in the darkest corners of the world are exposed to the rest of the world.
Hwang was not so fortunate. He was forced to live in the shadows for a decade during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, which didn’t want to disturb their cozy relations with Pyongyang. He left everything to share his knowledge of the reclusive North Korean regime, yet he was restricted to a life of scrutiny. If he had been allowed liberty, he may have realized what he came here for - contributing to a democratic movement in North Korea. Had he succeeded, the North Korean regime and the Korean Peninsula may not look like they do today.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin