Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Who was the Defector Hwang Jang-yo?

ONE of the most controversial figures in Korean politics ever since he arrived in Seoul in 1997, Hwang Jang-yop is proving to be as divisive in death as he was in life. The highest-ranking North Korean to defect to the South, he spent his last 13 years criticising the Pyongyang regime, revealing to the world the excesses and failings of his former master, Kim Jong Il.

Last Sunday, he was found dead—of natural causes—in his bathtub, in the police-protected safe house he called home. Conservative politicians lined up to praise him as a patriot. The government even awarded him a posthumous Order of Civic Merit, a precondition for his burial in Daejeon National Cemetery.

He suffered greatly, no doubt; after his defection, his family members left in North Korea were sent to concentration camps, and Hwang himself was the subject of death threats and assassination attempts by Northern agents. It is strange though that this man, who was also once Kim Jong Il’s teacher—and the creator of the fanciful juche ideology on which North Korea’s form of communism is based—is regarded as a hero in the South for finally seeing the light…in his seventies.

For left-leaning South Koreans—who generally seek to change the North through “sunshine” rather than the tough approach favoured by the current president, Lee Myung-bak—Hwang was something of an obstacle. The righteous venom he directed at his former comrades embarrassed the South’s previous government, which did its best to shut him up while pursuing a policy of making friends with the diminutive dictator across the border. Now in opposition, prominent Democratic Party politicians are in something of a bind; while it would be poor form to not pay respects, they are in no hurry to eulogise Hwang.

The praise showered on him by the conservative half of South Korea should be interpreted more as two fingers raised at Kim Jong Il, rather than any great appreciation of Hwang himself. For someone who spent 13 years talking about human rights, after having spent many more suppressing them, an Order of Merit seems a little much. Anyway, he already has one: awarded by Kim Il Sung, in 1982.The Economist

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