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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?