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."