War Stories

The Pyongyang Candidate

Hwang Jang Yop is North Korea’s Ahmad Chalabi.

Hwang, a poor bet

One cause of our troubles in Iraq, nearly everyone now understands, is that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and several top Pentagon officials gave too much credence to Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who pushed for an invasion by exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and by offering assurances that, after Saddam’s ouster, he and his fellow exiles from the Iraqi National Congress would return to Baghdad and assume power swiftly and smoothly.

This week, Bush and Co. have an opportunity to make a similar blunder in North Korea.

Hwang Jang Yop has come to Washington. He will deliver a “major address” this Friday at the Defense Forum Foundation, a conservative group that’s sponsoring his visit. He will also meet with several legislators and key administration officials, including Chalabi’s chief contact and enabler, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. To many who yearn for the overthrow of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s dictator, Hwang is seen as a potential Chalabi of Pyongyang. (Douglas Chin, a Korean-American pastor who has high hopes for Hwang, told the Los Angeles Times this week, “We would like to see something along the lines of the Iraqi National Congress.”)

Hwang made headlines in February 1997 when he showed up in Seoul as the highest-ranking defector from North Korea. He seemed to be a very big fish indeed. In the late 1950s, as deputy chairman of the Workers’ Party propaganda section, he conceived the Pyongyang regime’s official ideology of juche, or self-reliance. Through the ‘70s, he was a three-term chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. In 1980, he rose to chief secretary of the Central Committee.

So here, apparently, was someone who had an insider’s view of the world’s most cloistered country, who could provide firsthand intelligence of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s intentions and capabilities. At least one American newspaper noted that the impact would have been comparable if Thomas Jefferson or James Madison had defected to England.

For the past year, the Bush administration has been split, to the point of paralysis, between officials who want to negotiate with Kim Jong-il—to offer economic aid and security guarantees in exchange for the dismantling of his budding nuclear-weapons program—and those who prefer to deal with the problem by pressuring Kim’s regime into collapse. And now onto this bureaucratic battlefield storms Hwang Jang Yop seeking his moment in history.

Hwang’s long-term agenda is clear: to topple Kim’s regime. His short-term agenda is equally transparent: to convince the United States to join his cause—specifically to reject any aid-for-nukes trade, any forum for negotiation at all.

Last week, on the eve of his first journey westward, Hwang told a group of South Korean legislators: “The key focus should be to remove Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. To give unconditional support to North Korea for the sake of peace, while leaving the dictatorship alone, would be an illusion.”  In a subsequent New York Times interview, he said, “I absolutely oppose giving North Korea guarantees if the North withdraws its nuclear-weapons program.” He also said he wants America to lead a coalition “to eliminate the North Korean dictatorship.”

Toppling Kim has been Hwang’s goal since that day in February 1997 when, during an official trip to Tokyo, he told his comrades that he was going shopping, walked into the South Korean Embassy, and requested asylum. After he was brought to Seoul, South Korea’s Agency for National Security Planning concluded that his defection was authentic. “Hwang is concerned that the Kim Jong-il regime must collapse as soon as possible,” the agency stated in its report, “if we are to free our compatriots in the North from starvation and open the path to unification.”

A look at Hwang’s history reveals many motives for his views, philosophical and personal. Some of these motives are laudable; most of them are understandable; but that doesn’t mean they should be adopted as U.S. policy, especially to the degree they affect U.S. security interests—chief of which should be to prevent Pyongyang from building a nuclear arsenal, and to do so peacefully if possible.

Curbing Kim Jong-il’s militarism is the last thing Hwang wants to do. In a private memo that he wrote in August 1996, knowing he would soon defect, Hwang stressed that South Korea should do all it can to keep North Korea closed and isolated. To weaken the North’s economy, he wrote, “[I]t would be better to encourage their militarism” in order to “exacerbate North Korea’s inherent internal weaknesses, bringing about the collapse of the system.”

This prescription may seem sensible to a hermetic propagandist trained in dialectics by the Soviet educational system, but it seems a bit risky—even (to borrow an epithet that the Politburo applied to Khrushchev upon dismissing him after the Cuban missile crisis) harebrained—to adopt its logic as the basis for real-world policy.

Certainly it would be a mistake for Bush to lurch his policy toward “regime change” on the assumption that Hwang, as if making up for Chalabi’s failure in Baghdad, might step to the helm in Pyongyang.

First, it must be recognized, Hwang was not as much of an insider—nor was his defection as purely moralistic—as many press reports have suggested. He was removed from the chairmanship of the Supreme People’s Assembly back in 1983, at which point, as one Korean-American political analyst put it, “Hwang’s position deteriorated rapidly.” By 1996, Hwang was entirely “out of the loop.” At a meeting in July of that year, Kim Jong-il accused him of treachery. In a secret letter of Nov. 10, Hwang wrote to an associate outside the country, whom he had met on official travel and who subsequently helped arrange his defection, “I expect personal changes here. … If I lose my job, I will be unable to travel abroad. … I and my comrades must not be destroyed totally. You must ensure that this does not happen.”

The phrase “I and my comrades” sticks out. Kim Duk Hong, a Korean-Chinese businessman who had struck up a still-mysterious business partnership with Hwang during some of those foreign travels, told an associate around this time that Hwang’s plans included “forming a government in exile” in preparation for the day that Kim Jong-il’s regime collapses.

However, once in Seoul, Hwang proved less than useful in his role as defector. Rumors were floated that he had brought with him a “list” of North Korean spies inside Seoul’s ruling circles, but the rumor was denied, and nothing came of it. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service made Hwang chairman of its Unification Policy Research Institute but sacked him after he complained that the government was holding him prisoner.

It was true that the South Korean government was keeping Hwang bottled up, partly for his own protection, partly because his harsh views of the North were increasingly in conflict with Seoul’s new détentelike “sunshine” policy.

But then a key incident took place. In January 2002, according to a Wall Street Journal article, the NIS offered Hwang his own research institute and put up $235,000 to build a five-story building if Hwang relaxed his attacks. Shortly after, several conservatives—including the Defense Forum Foundation and Rep. Henry Hyde—invited Hwang to the United States. Hwang turned down the offer. He told NIS agents that he didn’t want to go if the Americans “want me to explain about nuclear and chemical weapons” in North Korea.

At that point, Kim Duk Hong, his longtime collaborator, split with Hwang. “I feel bitter toward you,” he wrote Hwang in a letter of Jan. 14, 2002, “for selling your political honor and conscience.”

Since then, Hwang and the NIS renewed their disputes. Hwang is now back on the war path, but it’s hard to assess his proclamations. Back in June 1998, he told Selig Harrison in a Washington Post interview that the agreement North Korea had signed with President Clinton four years earlier, to halt its nuclear-weapons program in exchange for U.S. economic aid, wasn’t necessary because the North “did not have the technology or financial means to complete the 50- and 200-megawatt reactors” that the United States was worried about—though, Hwang added, “All of us at party headquarters were under the impression that we already had the capacity for some nuclear weapons” before the ‘94 freeze (a view that is now commonly accepted). Similarly, at his first Seoul press conference, in July 1997, Hwang said, “I cannot say whether North Korea possesses [nuclear weapons] or not. … It is common knowledge that there are nuclear weapons, although there is no way I can confirm it.”

However, last July, the Manila Times reported Hwang saying that Kim Jong-il himself told him in 1996 that North Korea had developed nuclear weapons and that he’d signed a contract with Pakistan for help in enriching uranium. Hwang might have learned of such deals from reading about them in the world press, but it is extremely doubtful that he heard this from the “Dear Leader,” as Kim likes to be called. Hwang didn’t mention such a chat in his interview with Harrison or at his defection press conference, where it would have served him well to emphasize his high connections. As noted earlier, the evidence suggests that, by ‘96, Kim wasn’t talking with Hwang at all, except to admonish him for taking too keen an interest in China’s capitalist reforms.

Hwang is now 80 years old. He is an interesting and sad figure. When he defected, he left his family behind in Pyongyang. His wife subsequently committed suicide. One daughter died under mysterious circumstances when she fell off a truck. Another daughter and son are believed to be in labor camps. He is an aspiring (if late-in-coming) reformer who escaped a system that had no room for reform, a bitter philosopher who saw his life’s work twisted by an egomaniacal dictator whom he had once tutored, and who then found himself kicked off the ladder that he’d spent his whole life climbing.

“I am a person that has failed in politics,” Hwang wrote in a 1997 open letter. It would be best for everyone if Bush did nothing to alter that judgment.