When a top North Korean official named Hwang Jang Yop walked into South Korea's mission in Beijing Feb. 12, he set in motion events that may alter the political landscape of the country he left behind.
Mr. Hwang's defection will strengthen hard-liners in both Koreas, many analysts say, raising tensions in one of the most volatile parts of the globe.
His actions also brought into focus the contrasting ways in which the US and South Korea have been dealing with North Korea. Americans have a stake in what happens on the Korean peninsula, since 37,000 US troops protect the South.
For more than two years, American officials have engaged the isolated Communist state in efforts to bring it into the community of nations and bring calm to the peninsula. But South Korea, while veering between kindness and hostility, has settled on a policy of sharp-eyed vigilance.
Descriptions of a militant North Korean regime attributed to Hwang prove "the hawkish view is correct," says Pyon Jil In, the Tokyo-based publisher of a respected newsletter on Korean affairs. US policy, he adds, has been proved "wrong."
Since his defection, the South Korean media have publicized letters reportedly written by Hwang, which include critical analyses of North Korea's leadership, advice for the South Korean government, and explanations of his thinking.
Some Korea watchers have questioned the veracity of the letters, suspecting that they may reflect the influence of the South Korean intelligence agency. But even so, their message will likely be carried back into the North by word of mouth, along with news of the defection, says Katsumi Sato, head of the Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo.
Hwang was a longtime teacher of North Korea's ideology of self-reliance, and his former students populate the ranks of the country's elite. His defection is a defining moment, Mr. Sato argues, in a power struggle within the North's leadership.
The conflict, he says, pits leader Kim Jong Il and his supporters within the military, who are inclined to keep their country closed, against reformists who want a different future.
The country's food crisis adds urgency to this possible dispute. The North Korean economy has shrunk since 1990, floods have eroded the country's ability to feed itself, and millions of North Koreans face the prospect of starvation this year. Hwang, in his letters, wonders how can "a society where ... workers, farmers, and intellectuals are starving to death be called a society of socialism?"
In recent years, technocratic, reform-oriented officials have sought to open North Korea to trade and investment in the hope of turning the economy around. Mr. Sato says that the reformists are divided into those who would pursue closer ties with China and those who want warmer relations with the US. Many analysts see growing, overarching competition between the US and China for influence on the Korean peninsula.
In a meeting with reporters Thursday, Sato argued that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il now must purge highly placed reformists who may be emboldened by Hwang's defection or face a crisis of confidence. Mr. Kim, the son of dictator Kim Il Sung, has sought to consolidate his power since his father died in July 1994.
"North Korea has no tradition of solution by negotiation," Sato adds. "Everything is black or white. You win or you lose, you obey or you control." At the same time, other Korea watchers argue that Kim Jong Il has already done a good job of eliminating potential opponents.
In South Korea, the defection has brought both alarm and a quiet feeling that its view of the North has been confirmed. In Hwang's letters, he worries about thousands of North Korean agents and sympathizers in the South, including a spy with access to the inner circles of Seoul's government.
These comments won't trigger "a Korean-style McCarthyism," says Ha Yang-chool, a professor at Seoul National University. But people could start accusing each other of having associations with the North, as has happened before, he adds.
The sense of satisfaction comes from Hwang's descriptions of a North Korean regime uninterested in negotiating a gradual reunification with South Korea and intent on preparing for war. A North Korean who defected in 1982 was shot in a suburb of Seoul last weekend, perhaps as a warning to Hwang, and South Korea is on the alert against further violence.
"Hwang's testimony only confirms what we have been thinking about North Korea and is not going to influence our policy," says a South Korean government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "His advocacy of strong deterrence or vigilance is what we have already been doing."
Asked whether the letters have vindicated the South's policy of vigilance, in contrast to the US policy of engagement, the official says: "I won't answer the question. That is for you to judge."
Differences aside, Washington this week pledged $10 million and Seoul $6 million in food aid for North Korea, in response to an appeal by a United Nations agency.
US officials have argued that the North Korean leadership is essentially stable and sought to work with those interested in reform and better relations with the outside world. The US has not commented on Hwang's descriptions of his former country and has stayed out of negotiations between South Korea, which wants to bring Hwang to Seoul, and China.
On a human level, the defection remains an enigma. "The most striking thing to me," says Bruce Cumings, a Korea specialist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., "is that Hwang is similar to people from the South who go north and pay a big price." Several prominent South Koreans have ventured north to promote peace or reunification and been punished by the South's government for violating national security laws.
But the prison time some of these South Koreans have served does not compare to what the defection may have wrought on those close to Hwang and an aide who defected with him. Analysts say that North Korea quickly and brutally punishes defectors' families and associates.
* Michael Baker in Seoul contributed to this report.