TOKYO — Last Friday, Hwang Jang Yop, a scholarly and distinguished-looking North Korean official urged an audience in Tokyo to embrace North Korea's ideology of self-reliance and "say goodbye to the old world of domination and subjugation."
Yesterday Mr. Hwang said goodbye to Communist North Korea - forever.
South Korea says Hwang applied for asylum at its embassy in Beijing, making him the highest-ranking official to try to defect since the Korean peninsula was cut in two a half century ago.
Hwang may be a long-awaited source of reliable information about one of the world's most closed and enigmatic governments. "When Hwang comes [to South Korea], we will surely know the inside story on North Korea," says Woo Jae Sung of the World Freedom Center, a Seoul think tank.
It is unclear why Hwang, one of the 11 top leaders of the Korean Workers' Party, would take such a step. "We are still not certain why he has tried to defect to South Korea," says a Japanese government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Maybe he is facing some kind of political risk on his return, or maybe he has become desperate over the current situation in North Korea."
While the leadership of the country seems stable, by many accounts the situation for ordinary North Koreans is grim. Analysts say the North's economy has shrunk since 1991, and during the past two years flooding has exacerbated chronic food shortages. Independent organizations have warned of a possible famine in the North if the international community does not provide significant amounts of aid.
At the same time, the peace between the two Koreas is a hostile one at best, as it has been since the 1950-53 Korean War. The two countries are separated by the world's most militarized border, and some 37,000 US troops help protect South Korea.
The high-level defection will be a public-relations blow to the North, where preparations are under way to celebrate the birthday of "Great Leader" Kim Jong Il on Sunday. Mr. Kim has run the country in all but name since the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in July 1994.
North Korea watchers say the younger Kim is on the verge of solidifying his position as the country's ruler. Hwang himself, in an interview with a Japanese newspaper last week, said Kim would be named North Korea's president and general secretary of the Worker's Party after the third anniversary of Kim Il Sung's death in July.
The defection may dampen the younger Kim's birthday celebrations, since Hwang was once a tutor to Kim and is credited with crafting North Korea's ideology, a Marxist hybrid that stresses independence. Hwang came to Japan two weeks ago to lead a seminar on juche, as the theory is called in Korean, but he may have felt it was in need of reform.
Lee Dong Bok, a member of South Korea's National Assembly and an analyst of North Korean affairs, says, "It's already been several years since we've been hearing him express a sense of dissatisfaction with juche."
Japanese government officials declined to meet with Hwang during his visit, citing a recent North Korean decision to postpone planned diplomatic talks with the US and South Korea. The refusal extinguished any plan Hwang might have had to obtain promises of aid from the Japanese. As a result, he may have anticipated disgrace upon his return to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, says analyst Woo. "In North Korea, criticism is like the kiss of death," he adds.
Even so, North Koreans do not defect lightly, since it means certain punishment for family members and associates left behind. An aide, Kim Dok-Hong, reportedly joined Hwang in seeking asylum, and South Korean news reports said both men are married with four children each.
The defection puts China in a difficult position. Beijing is North Korea's only ally of any significance, and allowing Hwang to leave the country for South Korea might anger the North Korean leadership.
As it is, China has pulled away from the North in recent years, establishing diplomatic relations with Seoul and pursuing commercial ties with South Korean companies. At press time, Hwang remained in Beijing and South Korean officials were assembling a high-level delegation to negotiate his departure from China.
It is hard to say how the defection might affect North Korean politics. Hwang is a man of Kim Il Sung's time, and the younger Kim has lately been gradually elevating officials and military officers of his own age group.
"Maybe the defection by the author of juche and a prominent member of Kim Il Sung's [group] would strengthen the younger generation," says Michael Breen, a former journalist who runs a Seoul-based consulting firm providing advice on North Korea.
North Korea's official news agency KCNA, in an implicit acknowledgement of Hwang's presence in the South Korean Embassy, said late yesterday that he must have been kidnapped.
* Michael Baker contributed to this report from Seoul.