Defector's tales fuel Seoul's paranoia

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The Independent Online
Since his arrival in Seoul on Sunday, South Koreans have learnt a good deal about the highest-ranking North Korean defector, Hwang Jang Yop, although it is not the kind of intelligence most had in mind.

They know what time he gets up (5am) and they know what he has for breakfast (a glass of ginseng juice). They know he has a light appetite and that he is in good health for a 74-year-old.

But apart from a few dubious leaks, and an alarming speech he gave on his arrival, they know none of the things Mr Hwang was supposed to tell them - about the workings of the North Korean regime, and its leader, Kim Jong Il.

In fact, since his defection to the South Korean consulate in Peking in February, the Hwang affair has revealed more about the paranoias and vulnerabilities of South Koreans than it has about their estranged brethren.

The latest "revelation" came yesterday, in a newspaper report about a letter from Mr Hwang allegedly passed to South Korean intelligence in August."North Korea is capable of scorching South Korea with nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and rockets. If the United States intervenes, it plans to scorch Japan too."

The statements are in keeping with Mr Hwang's declaration on arriving in Seoul that he had come "to block war by joining hands with brothers in the south."

But this news had little impact. First, it is unclear why Mr Hwang would have run the risk of writing such a document and how it got to Seoul.

Secondly, as a philosopher and intellectual, it is not the kind of information to which he would have had access. Finally, the timing and content of the report makes it suspicious: at a particularly sticky moment for South Korea's own political establishment, it is just the kind of thing to distract from the problems of the government.

The Seoul administration has been badly compromised by bribery allegations involving bank loans to a recently bankrupt steel company.

But media interest in the scandal has been almost eclipsed by speculation about a mysterious list which Mr Hwang is rumoured to have brought with him.

The list is said to carry the names of prominent South Korean figures, including members of the opposition, who are in the pay of the North.

Government spokesmen deny the existence of such a list, but the rumour has been enough to provoke anxious squeaks from opposition politicians about witch-hunts. For the time being, Mr Hwang is giving the South a great deal to think about, before he has spilled a single bean.

r South Korean diplomats arrived back in Seoul from New York yesterday after failing to secure North Korean participation in talks on peace on the peninsula. Officials from Pyongyang refused to agree to the talks, intended to include China and the US, unless they received more aid to alleviate serious food shortages.