'Then I realised my choice: either kill my wife or defect' choice and North Korea

An ex-diplomat tells Richard Lloyd Parry why he joined the rush to escape North Korea
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN Lee Tae Yon was a diplomat in the North Korean embassy in Zambia, a man came to see him and ordered him to kill his own wife.

The visitor was a North Korean intelligence agent, sent to Lusaka to deal with the defection of Mrs Lee, who had fled to the South Korean embassy a few days earlier. On the personal orders of Kim Jong Il, the country's "Dear Leader", the North Koreans were attempting to set up a meeting between husband and wife. He would talk to her, and urge her to come back. When she refused, as everyone knew she would, Mr Lee was to produce a small concealed pistol, and shoot her on the spot.

"That's when I realised my choice: either kill my wife or defect," he says. "Even if she had come back, she would certainly have been punished - put to death or sent to prison. If I refused to kill her then I would be punished, for disobeying the instructions of Kim Jong Il. But how could I contemplate killing the woman I loved for 10 years, the mother of my two children? And even if I did, and I went back home, what would people say? 'There is the man who killed his own wife.' "

Two weeks later, Mr Lee (not his real name) followed her into the South Korean embassy, and within a matter of days both had been whisked away to a new life in Seoul. But in winning his own freedom, he almost certainly sacrificed that of his family. The following month, the name of his father, a regional chairman of the ruling Workers' Party, ominously stopped appearing on lists of senior officials issued out of North Korea. The Lees' 10-year old daughter and seven-year old son were living with their grandparents at the time of their parents' defection: since then nothing has been heard of them.

The purge was laconically noted by the Naewoe Press, a South Korean organisation which monitors developments in the North. "Most probably," it recorded, "[Mr Lee's father] and his family members, along with his son's children, were sent to a political prison camp".

Since the American and Soviet forces divided the peninsula into the capitalist South and the communist North in 1945, the Korean Cold War has produced many compelling and tragic stories, but none stranger than those of the North Korean defectors. The Lees' escape from Zambia, in January last year, was dramatic enough. Four months later, the pilot of a North Korean MiG-19 risked a second Korean War when he deliberately flew over the demilitarised zone and into the arms of the South Korean military. And for the last two weeks, in Seoul, Pyongyang and Peking, diplomats and intelligence agents have been acting out the latest episode in the world's last Cold War spy thriller.

It began 12 days ago, when an elderly man named Hwang Jang Yop arrived by taxi at the South Korean embassy in Peking. Mr Hwang, who was on his way back to Pyongyang from an official visit to Tokyo, was a leading philosopher of North Korean communism and the former tutor of Kim Jong Il. The defection, diplomats in Seoul were quoted as saying, was the equivalent of Marx abandoning Russia or Thomas Jefferson quitting the United States.

Official news agencies in Pyongyang immediately insisted that he had been kidnapped. Three days later, another defector living near Seoul was shot through the head by two unidentified attackers, widely believed to be North Korean agents; the last thing he did before losing consciousness was to hold up two fingers and utter the words: "Spy, spy..."

The announcement yesterday of the sudden death of North Korea's defence minister, one day after the appointment of a new prime minister, adds to the impression of growing instability and desperation. There are some 700 former North Koreans in the South and, since the collapse of Pyongyang's trade with the former Soviet bloc and a series of disastrous harvests, their numbers have grown every year.

Defectors bring with them many useful things, and not just fighter planes. For a country like North Korea, closed to all but a handful of foreign diplomats, journalists and businessmen, they are a unique source of intelligence on the economic, political and military situation. Paraded before the TV cameras in Seoul, they provide useful ammunition in the tireless propaganda battle between South and North. But increasingly, they are a cause of anxiety: as North Korea deteriorates, or even collapses, what is to be done with these growing numbers of refugees?

Simply as a financial proposition, the task of reunifying the two countries is a daunting one, as the Seoul government began to realise after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. South Korean diplomats conduct regular exchanges with their German counterparts, but their own situation is, if anything, more extreme. According to recent estimates, even after $750bn (pounds 470m) of investment spread over 20 years, wages in North Korea would still be little more than half those in the South; every year that passes makes the whole undertaking more expensive still.

Anxiety about the financial burdens of reunification is already manifesting itself in the settlements provided to former North Koreans. In the old days, defectors were literally showered with gold, carefully calibrated to the amount of intelligence which they brought with them - from a couple of ounces for workers and farmers to 40lb or more for the most senior diplomats, bureaucrats and military officers.

A MiG pilot who flew across the border in 1983 got $1.7m, plus $18,000 worth of free housing. Even the humblest defectors cost several tens of thousands of dollars each to set up in their new lives, plus the cost of protecting them from assassinations like the one last weekend. South Korean taxpayers have, in effect, 700 potential Salman Rushdies to support; predictably enough, not everyone is happy about the situation.

The country's Unification Ministry will soon embark on a new project to reduce the cost of turning North Koreans into South Koreans. The answer is bulk processing: this year a camp will be built where up to 500 defectors will spend their first year, learning about their new country, spilling the beans on their old one and undergoing vocational training. "The aim is to cut down the cost of individual defectors to less than $10,000," says Moon Moo Hong, assistant minister for unification policy. "It will be experimental - it will enable us to learn how to help North Koreans adjust to life under capitalism."

For the greatest fear is not of economic, but social instability. Through television and radio, East Germans had been exposed for decades to the brand names and aspirations of the West; in North Korea, where unauthorised possession a short wave receiver is a serious crime, ignorance of the outside world is almost complete.

"It has been ruled under a one-man dictatorship for such a long time, that people in North Korea have developed a strange mindset," says Mr Moon. The transition from poverty in North Korea to riches, celebrity, and the constant fear of assassination, are too much for many defectors - there are stories of bankruptcy, gambling, unhappy relationships, even suicide.

"Frankly, the ones who are truly satisfied are pretty few," says Mr Moon. "The ones who are frustrated or depressed with their circumstances are many. They come here with such high expectations, and it is difficult to fulfil the expectations of people who have crossed the line from death to life."