Alternately impatient, frank, and emotional, North Korea's highest-level defector yesterday finally gave a public glimpse into the world's most secluded country.
Saying North Koreans have nothing to lose if they invade the South, Hwang Jang Yop implied that the North was preparing to attack. With the economy in shambles and the Pyongyang leadership jealous of South Korea, Mr. Hwang said North Korea's two policies were to undermine South Korea and strengthen the North's military in preparation for forced reunification.
"Don't think otherwise," he warned.
Four months after he made his daring defection from his crumbling country, Mr. Hwang - considered to be the "crown jewel" of information by South Korean and US officials - spoke at his first televised press conference.
Instead of feeling relieved, many South Koreans were left rattled. He said the North's war preparations are "beyond imagination." He emphasized North Korea's determination to invade, the absolute rule of Kim Jong Il, and conveyed his personal guilt as a member of North Korea's inner circle.
He fled, he said, to prevent a tragedy. "The North talks of peaceful reunification, but they're preparing for war," Hwang said. "The entire country is a fortress," with more structures underground than above, he said.
When questioned on his motives for defecting, his casual tone soon changed to an irritated one. Many here have doubts as to why the author of North Korea's guiding philosophy of national self-reliance would abandon his country, wife, and children. A member of the older elite, Hwang was personally criticized by Kim Jong Il last year, and may have been ripe for purging in favor of younger military leaders, say North watchers.
"My family's life is more important than my life, but the future of this nation is more important than the lives of my family," he responded. Hwang also said he was tired of "lying" for North Korea, and "felt a great remorse" for being part of Pyongyang's "wrongdoings."
"It's a society where you can't express your thoughts," he continued. "Hundreds of thousands of people are dying in camps.... Due to lack of fuel, North Koreans wear hats and heavy clothes to bed."
His press conference was widely watched in his new country. South Koreans will also be "a lot" more worried about war, says Moon Myung-ho, an editorial writer at The Munhwa Ilbo, an evening paper.
Hwang repeatedly emphasized Kim Jong Il's absolute one-man rule, saying that if anyone initiated policy discussion, "he immediately has to die . There's no hard-liners or soft-liners in North Korea - make sure you understand," he warned
Kim Dok-hong, Hwang's assistant who defected with him, said, "The country is his, the military is his and the people are his slaves.... The economy has vanished and people are starving to death. What's the reason? The outdated feudal system forced upon people, the dictatorship, no freedom, war preparations, waste of the whole country's assets . Kim is a traitor of the people".
Further unsettling to some here was his claim that North Korean spies freely enter the South like they were "going in and out of their own house." And although he's never seen a nuclear weapon, Hwang said, "it's a matter of common sense" that North Korea has them.
If Pyongyang becomes receptive to peaceful reunification, Hwang advocates giving minimal aid, as opposed to massive aid infusions, German-style. And he cautions that North Korea only pretends it is opening, and says the current regime "has to fall first," making clear that while pushing an open-door policy, South Koreans must thoroughly prepare for the worst.
Although North-South relations have recently improved slightly - the North and South Korean Red Cross agreed on food aid, and North Korea agreed to preparatory peace talks - Pyongyang hasn't stopped its threatening gestures.
A TV documentary showing horrific conditions in North Korea prompted a Seoul newspaper editorial to demand that Kim step down. Pyongyang has threatened to blow up the newspaper's office.