Handling defectors well

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Handling defectors well

“Let’s not disclose that to this administration, no matter what happens,” said Kim Dok-hong, former president of Yogwang General Trading Company and a close associate of Hwang Jang-yop, former Workers’ Party secretary and the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect to South Korea. Kim made the comment abruptly at the end of 1998, the first year of the Kim Dae-jung administration.

The National Intelligence Service had at the time extremely close surveillance of the safe house where the two former North Korean officials were staying. The agency, however, could never solve the puzzle of what was being withheld, because Hwang and his associates were skeptical of the Kim administration, which promoted a reconciliatory policy toward the North, including the Mount Kumgang tour program, in order to arrange an inter-Korean summit.

When they decided to escape the North and defect to the South in February 1997, just one year earlier, it was a totally different world. Hwang was the architect of the North’s founding ideology of Juche, or self-reliance, and the Kim Young-sam administration enthusiastically welcomed him. Then President Kim, who was disappointed at the North’s nuclear arms development, was promoting a hard-line North Korea policy. Hwang’s defection supported his initiative. “What I wish is freeing the North Korean people from famine as soon as possible and achieving a peaceful unification of our homeland,” Hwang stated in the statement he created on the day of his defection, describing what he wished to accomplish in the South. The president promised him the freedom to criticize the North Korean regime and supported his publications and lectures.

But the liberal victory in the presidential election at the end of 1997 led Hwang down a path of ordeal. He was gagged from condemning the Kim Jong-il regime. Although the United States and Japan made numerous requests for him to testify before Congress and give lectures, the Kim Dae-jung administration did not allow him to by delaying the issuance of a passport and citing difficulties in protecting his personal safety.

The National Intelligence Service, which used to support Hwang, also changed its attitude. Five months after the inter-Korean summit, the service shut down Hwang’s plot for North Korea’s democratization in November 2000. “It was an attempt to reinforce his status by promoting a Cold War ideology from the short-sighted perspective that the North will soon collapse,” it said in a public criticism of Hwang.
“Honestly, Hwang is a burden,” the third deputy director of the intelligence agency, who was in charge of North Korea affairs at the time, said, complaining about his criticisms of the North.

The Roh Moo-hyun administration, then, evicted Hwang and his associates from the safe house in July 2003. In a press release, Hwang was referred without an honorific. The disrespectful attitude shocked the world.

In recent days, the world was shocked by the defection of Thae Yong-ho, the deputy ambassador at North Korea’s embassy in London, and his family. Many speculated that the North’s elite is collapsing. President Park Geun-hye even talked about “serious cracks” in the Kim Jong-un regime. Some called Thae “the second Hwang Jang-yop.”

Thae’s defection clearly revealed the vulnerability of the current North Korean regime. It is an ominous sign that the so-called partisan bloodline and the elite group, the central axis of power, are abandoning their country one after another. Some argue that the North Korean regime won’t collapse so easily, and that it is foolish to blindly expect the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. What’s clear is that the regime will collapse — if the young North Korean ruler ignores the warning signs coming from his ruling class.

It’s possible that more elite members will defect because of Kim’s stubborn policy on nuclear and missile development. That is why our treatment of Thae is important at this particular point.

He had an option to defect to another country through his contact with western intelligence agencies. For the future of his two sons, he could have chosen a third country. He, however, chose the South. Many key officials who are considering abandoning their homeland will surely pay attention to the settlement of Thae and his family in the South.

But the situation doesn’t appear amicable. After the National Intelligence Service’s briefing to the Intelligence Committee, the ruling and opposition parties issued different briefings and interpretations.

The timing is also worrisome because the next presidential election will take place in one year and four months. Unfortunately, the decade of the Sunshine Policy of the two past liberal administrations and the decade of a hardline policy of the two conservative administrations will inevitably be compared during the campaign.

Hwang died in the bathtub of his house, alone, in October 2010. Because the South Korean government abandoned its promises, he became an unwanted guest. Many intelligence officials who won orders of merit for their contributions to bringing Hwang to the South later changed their words and denounced him to please the liberal administrations. And yet, Hwang did not give up his efforts to bring democracy to the North. And a nuclear-armed North Korea, as he testified, became a reality. His testimony that about 2 million to 3 million North Korean people have starved to death was once considered nonsense, but the North later admitted it.

Thae’s defection to the South must not be a deja-vu of Hwang’s defection. We should ensure defectors are quickly settled in the South and focus on what role they should play in unification. We do not need another ill-fated defector.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 26, Page 32

*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Lee Young-jong
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