Uninterrupted foreign aid only enables North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Il, to postpone any meaningful economic or political reforms. Outsiders should not think that even the limited economic reforms introduced in the late 1990s are a sign of loosened political controls over the population. On the contrary, Kim Jong Il thinks these will placate his donors and keep the foreign funds flowing into his coffers. His control over the population far exceeds that of any of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe and no outside assistance can change that reality.
That assessment came from Hwang Jang-Yop, the highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea. At a recent luncheon on Capitol Hill, Hwang told the audience that he had predicted in 1997 that Kim’s regime would fall within five years. But, he said, conditions have changed and the regime survives, much to the detriment of the North Korean people. Estimates of the death toll from starvation in the North during Kim Jong Il’s reign range as high as three million.
Hwang should know. Over the course of four decades, he rose through the ranks of North Korea’s ruling Workers Party to become the regime’s chief of ideology. He served three terms as head of the Supreme People’s Assembly and was a member of the Party’s Central Committee. He worked closely with North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and is said to have mentored his son, Kim Jong Il, who took over the country after his father’s death in 1994.
Disillusionment with the younger Kim’s rule led Hwang to defect in 1997 during a trip to Beijing. He eventually made his way to South Korea, but once there, he was kept under virtual house arrest by the authorities who professed concern about Kim’s threats to kidnap or assassinate Hwang. The South Korean media speculated that they feared that any publicity surrounding Hwang’s defection could undermine its efforts to improve relations with North Korea. The Washington Post reported that they also feared that Hwang could identify South Korean politicians who had been overly friendly to the North over the years. At his recent appearance in Washington, Hwang adamantly refused to answer questions about South Korean officials or his detention in Seoul.
Although he was a high-ranking official in Pyongyang, he professed to have no first-hand knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear program and said that he never saw any nuclear arms. But in interviews prior to his departure from Seoul, he told reporters that Kim Jong Il had told him directly that the North had developed a nuclear weapons program. He also said the existence of the program was common knowledge among the North’s ruling elite. He was asked whether Kim Jong Il had ever intended to abide by the ill-conceived 1994 Agreed Framework, which the Clinton administration had hoped would freeze the North’s nuclear program in return for food and energy supplies. Hwang replied only that the end result demonstrated Kim’s intentions. The North has recently admitted to having maintained a clandestine nuclear program after the Agreed Framework came into force. He also said that food aid, supplied to the North as part of the deal, was diverted to feed the military. Anything left after that, Hwang said, was sold to generate hard currency for the regime.
Hwang identified China as the linchpin of Kim Jong Il’s power. He said that the food and fuel aid supplied to the North by China is his “lifeline.” He emphasized the need to sever those ties and thinks that the regime’s collapse would soon follow. But during Hwang’s visit to Washington, China announced that the North had agreed to restart the six-party talks aimed at stopping its nuclear program. For his part, Hwang opposed any deal that would maintain Kim Jong Il in power.
Despite his reluctance to do so, Hwang did offer some oblique criticism of South Korea’s government. He seems to have lost faith in the South’s interest in bringing about the end of the dictatorship in the North. He said that the South is “becoming more red” and that its young people are increasingly opposed to the United States. That will make it harder, he said, to bring about the fall of Kim Jong Il. In an interview with the New York Times, he urged the U.S. to lead a coalition of South Korea and Japan to “eliminate the North Korean dictatorship.” He favored a “wait-and-see” attitude when asked for his assessment of current U.S. policy on North Korea, but he stressed that without cessation of foreign assistance, there is little chance that the tyrant’s reign of terror will end.