Defection exposes weakness in Kim's leadership

The government of North Korea, already one of the most isolated and unpredictable in the world, suffered a devastating blow yesterday, when one of its most senior cadres defected to its hated enemy, South Korea.

Hwang Jang Yop, a close adviser of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, and one of the regime's leading ideologues, fled to the South Korean embassy in Peking, and requested asylum, according to Seoul's foreign ministry. The South Korean cabinet, which is reeling from a corruption scandal, held an emergency meeting to discuss the defection and the foreign minister immediately cancelled a planned visit to an international meeting in Singapore.

Mr Hwang is the highest- ranking official ever to desert North Korea, and the defection could hardly have come at a more sensitive moment. Economically, the country is believed to be close to collapse, with continued fuel shortages bringing paralysis to factories and farms and forcing the closure of unheated schools and offices. After two consecutive years of serious floods, the country recently admitted it has only half of the rice it needs to feed its people.

Pyongyang has received millions of pounds of grain and fuel oil from the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as international charities and United Nations organisations. The U.N.'s food aid agency said yesterday it had launched an urgent appeal to raise $41.6 million for urgent supplies to stave off famine in North Korea.

The Rome-based World Food Progamme said people were receiving a quarter of their minimum daily food needs.

But for all its obvious economic distress, the Pyongyang regime has never before given any sign of being politically divided, and Mr Hwang's defection may prove to be a turning point in more ways than one. As one of the most senior members of the ruling Workers' Party, he will be able to provide unprece- dented information on the internal workings of the most closed country in the world. But, alarmingly, his desertion suggests that North Korea's domestic turmoil reaches the highest political level.

Yesterday's defection is made all the more humiliating by its timing. This Sunday, the 55th birthday of the country's "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il, is North Korea's biggest national holiday, celebrated nationwide with parades, operas and gymnastic displays. Mr Hwang was in Peking on his way back from Tokyo where he was guest of honour at a seminar held in honour of the Dear Leader. In speeches and interviews, he emphasised the stability of Kim Jong Il's regime and predicted that he would soon take on the post of president, left vacant by the death in 1994 of his father, the country's founding leader Kim Il Sung.

As a secretary of the Workers' Party, 72- year old Mr Hwang was ranked in the top 25 of the North Korean political hierarchy. He was educated at the elite Kim Il Sung University and in Moscow, and like many leading party members is said to be a distant relative of Kim Jong Il.

Mr Hwang served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the North's parliament, the Supreme Peoples' Assembly. He was one of its most senior propagandists, the leading exponent of the country's guiding philosophy of juche or "self reliance", Pyongyang's curious blend of conventional Marxism and the personality cult of the Kim family.

"He's not just a big fish, he's a blue whale," said Aidan Foster-Carter of the Leeds University Korea Project yesterday. "The blow to the Pyongyang government is immeasurable," said Koichi Kato, the secretary-general of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, which has close, unofficial ties with Pyongyang.

A second man, identified as Kim Duk Hung, the president of a North Korean trading company, accompanied Mr Hwang to the South Korean embassy. "Since it has been established that he is defecting of his own free will, the issue will be handled through consultations with the Chinese government," Seoul's ambassador to Peking, Chung Jong Wook, said last night. The two are not yet home and dry: China maintains a discreet but close relationship with North Korea and is obliged by treaty to repatriate North Koreans found without valid travel documents.

Pyongyang's unofficial embassy in Tokyo, the General Association of Korean Residents, denied the reports, insisting that Mr Hwang had already boarded a train bound for North Korea.

"Hwang's defection is the strongest ever signal the Stalinist regimes hierarchy is cracking," said Park Hun-Ok, senior fellow at Seoul's Institute of North Korean Studies.

"With North Korea's economy in a shambles and the country totally isolated in the inter- national community, only its juche ideology has been the driving force to keep it alive."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas