Hurrahs and tight security for Korea's defector

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The Independent Online
Hwang Jang Yop, the most senior official ever to defect from North Korea, finally arrived in the South Korean capital, Seoul, yesterday, declaring his wish to see the peninsula reunified, but warning of the military danger from his former homeland.

Sixty-seven days after his unexpected plea for asylum at the South Korean embassy in Peking, Mr Hwang's arrival was a curious mixture of media circus and high-security operation.

His descent from the aircraft amid shouts of "hurray!", was broadcast live on all three of South Korea's television news channels. But the Filipino commercial jet on which he arrived was escorted to Seoul by South Korean fighters and, as the 74-year-old defector climbed into a waiting car to be whisked to a secret location in Seoul, a bulletproof jacket peeped from under his suit.

As a former secretary of the Worker's Party, Mr Hwang is expected to bring with him unprecedented insights into the workings of the North Korean regime and its "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il. His opening remarks, however, did little more than echo the official position of the South Korean government.

"I came to South Korea because I am convinced the only way out is to block war by joining hands with brothers in the South," he quavered. "North Korea seems to think there is no option but to use the powerful military force it has built up over decades

"If my compatriots in the South permit, I only hope to show repentance to some degree before my race by joining forces to block war provocations and devoting my remaining energies to peaceful reunification."

To some South Koreans, though, Mr Hwang's sudden enthusiasm for reunification is not entirely convincing. Until his dramatic defection on 12 February, he appeared to be a loyal party member, best known for codifying "juche", North Korea's brand of "self-reliance".

The circumstances leading up to his defection are not known, but diplomats in Seoul speculate that the imminent fear of being purged had as much to do with it as the love of freedom. The leader of South Korea's conservative United Liberal Democrat Party, Kim Jong Pil, warned last week against welcoming Mr Hwang as a hero.

Defectors to South Korea often find an ambivalence in their new countrymen - welcome and curiosity, but sometimes mixed with a wariness and suspicion. As the North Korean economy has declined over the last few years, with food shortages threatening to turn into full-blown famine, the number of defectors has increased, raising the possibility of an eventual refugee crisis.

Quite apart from the cost of rehabilitating former North Koreans, there is also the question of what happens to those they leave behind. If past form is anything to go by, Mr Hwang's family in Pyongyang face, at best, the loss of all their privileges, at worst, imprisonment and persecution.

"I could not disobey the order of my conscience," he explained yesterday. "All those I love put together cannot be traded for the life-and-death fate of the 70 million people of our race."

Mr Hwang's defection in Peking was an embarrassment to the Chinese government which has traditionally been the ally of the North. After a month of secretive negotiations, he was flown to a hidden location on the Philippines for a discreet cooling off period.

His arrival yesterday came the day after North Korean diplomats in New York failed two days running to turn up for a meeting with American and South Korean counterparts to discuss a proposal for peace talks.