A Rare Portrait of North Korea

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Hwang Jang Yop, North Korea's top propagandist, confidant of the late leader Kim Il Sung and mentor to his son Kim Jong Il, fled to South Korea in February 1997. He is by far the most senior defector the North has ever lost. Hwang, 75, presented an intelligence bonanza for the South and a huge embarrassment for Pyongyang. He met last week at a safe house in Seoul with Tokyo correspondent Donald Macintyre and Seoul reporter Stella Kim for his first-ever interview with the Western media. Excerpts:On why he defected: If Kim Jong Il had not been killing massive numbers of people through starvation and harboring the desire for another war, I would not have defected. One has to judge a person by what he has done, and so far Kim has been starving his people to death. He is also ruining all that his father built, such as the economy. I came to South Korea to say that North Koreans are dying of starvation in massive numbers. Secondly, I had to let the world know that Kim is intent on launching another war against the South.On the response to his message: At first, South Koreans did not seem to believe me. But I feel that they believe me more and more as time goes by. North Korea is a completely closed society, so nobody can really know what goes on inside. The South Koreans don't know, and neither do the Chinese. The Americans know the least. I feel that the South Korean authorities are not telling all that they know to average citizens. I have talked about North Korea's food problems many times. But the authorities would wait for some confirmation before releasing the information to the public. I also talked at length about how dictatorial and oppressive Kim Jong Il is, but that has not been publicized enough.On Kim Jong Il's leadership style: He prefers to rely on private and secret means, using his closest aides rather than institutions and open, public channels. He likes using terror. It was useless to hold meetings because he would not listen to anyone. His father was different--Kim Il Sung was a good listener. Kim Jong Il mostly works during the night. He reads all sorts of reports and policy suggestions submitted by the party, military, foreign ministry, security apparatus and the rest of the government. He also keeps up with the world's bestsellers. He has people summarize them because he is short of time. For example, he read books on the economy by Paul Kennedy and [U.S. Labor Secretary] Robert Reich. His favorite books are novels. He pays particular attention to anything written about himself. On Kim's vindictiveness: It is not that difficult to displease Kim and become the object of his suspicion and anger. Anyone who doesn't have something nice to say, or complains about Kim, is purged or punished. For example, if his secret surveillance team reports that someone hasn't shown him enough respect, the person is turned over to an ideological struggle meeting. The person will always be found guilty of whatever crime he is accused of committing and sent to a concentration camp. I think there are several hundred thousand political prisoners, maybe about 300,000, in a network of concentration camps. I believe my family and relatives were sent to one of these camps.On the U.S. role in reunifying the two Koreas: First of all, the U.S. troops stationed in the South are the only thing deterring war on the peninsula. Secondly, if the U.S. government guides reunification under South Korean leadership, it will be possible. The U.S. must arrange that all food aid be provided to the North through South Korean government channels. So when the world helps the North, North Koreans will eventually learn that South Koreans are helping them survive. If the U.S. is willing to do that, the rest of the world will follow.On what Kim wants from the U.S.: America is the one and only superpower in the world now, and by dealing directly with the U.S. Kim Jong Il believes that he can strengthen his authority. This is why Kim insisted that he talk directly with the U.S. over nuclear issues.On the possibility of a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang: North Korea has been negotiating with the U.S. about establishing such an office. But when I was in North Korea, Kim Jong Il was adamant about not allowing the Americans to set one up in Pyongyang. He thought he could keep other embassies under his control and cut off all contacts between these diplomats and North Koreans. But Kim thought keeping the Americans under control would be difficult because they are not an obedient people. Kim's biggest fear in allowing the Americans into North Korea is that his tyrannical rule will be exposed to the world--that when the Americans tell the world, everyone will believe them.