China rids itself of unwelcome guest

North Korean defector is spirited away to Philippines

The story so far has had all the elements of a Cold War thriller. The question now is whether Hwang Jang Yop will enjoy a comfortable retirement in the free world, or soon become a victim of a North Korean hit squad.

Mr Hwang, the highest-level official ever to defect from the last hard- line Stalinist state, was believed to have spent last night in the northern Philippines town of Baguio after being spirited out of Peking yesterday morning. In Seoul, the South Korean spokesman, Lee Kyu Hyung, said: "With the co-operation of a third country we have him staying in a secure and safe place. He is under our control."

From the moment Mr Hwang sought refuge on 12 February in the consular section of the South Korean embassy in Peking, China had struggled to rid itself of a diplomatic nuisance. The trick was not to offend Pyongyang, with whom it formerly boasted a relationship "as close as lips and teeth", while dispatching Mr Hwang to his preferred goal of Seoul, with whom Peking enjoys a thriving trade relationship. Few countries were prepared to offer the defector a face-saving stopover, until the Philippines stepped in.

From his flight to the South Korean consulate in a Peking taxi, after shaking off his minders on a shopping trip, Mr Hwang's escape has been the stuff of spy drama. The 73-year-old ranked 24th in Pyongyang's political hierarchy, and was one of the ideologues of North Korea's political dogma.

Initially the defection flushed out the legions of North Koreans in Peking, who staked out the consular building with their lapel badges of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, unprecedentedly pinned inside their jackets. Chinese armoured personnel carriers and soldiers soon ringed the compound, a wise precaution given at least one attempt at infiltration by a North Korean commando squad.

Yesterday's journey out of China started with a ruse, a Sunday-night decoy convoy of dark-windowed minibuses which travelled from the consulate to the airport. But it was not until Monday evening that they repeated the show - with the real Mr Hwang on board. There was heavy Chinese securityaround all South Korean buildings.

China breathed a quiet sigh of relief after seeing Mr Hwang reach the Philippines alive. For the past five weeks Peking has been walking a diplomatic tightrope. So sensitive is the incident, that all that was said in a terse official statement last night was that Mr Hwang had left of his own free will. Mr Hwang is expected to spend at least a week in the Philippines before proceeding to South Korea, where he faces life under protective armed guard.

The defector leaves behind in North Korea a family which, if widespread reports can be believed, faces execution or dispatch to the labour camps. Demoted from their privileged existence, they, like all ordinary North Koreans, will be hungry.

The executive director of the World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini, yesterday flew back to Peking after a fact-finding mission in North Korea. Centrally distributed food rations had dropped to 350 calories a day, except for people taking part in manual- labour programmes to restore land damaged in the floods of 1995 and 1996, she said. Children were suffering from stunted growth. Roots and dried leaves were all that was available to augment the meagre rations, which will soon run out unless international food aid is stepped up, Ms Bertini added. A new WFP appeal will attempt to reach all children under six.

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