CROSSING THE LINE
FEBRUARY 17, 1997
One of North Korea's leading intellectuals has defected and another defector has been shot dead in South Korea. North Korea, after some objections, apparently has accepted the defection. Two foreign policy experts -- Selig Harrison, a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and William Taylor, senior vice president for international security affairs and director of political military studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- discuss the recent events on the peninsula and what North Korea's government might do next.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next tonight the tale of defection, assassination attempts, and intrigue on the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea face each other across one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. The two countries technically remain in a state of belligerency because no comprehensive peace agreement has ever replaced the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
February 11, 1997:
The former U.S. ambassador to South Korea discusses the recent labor unrest there and the famine in North Korea.
November 29, 1996:
Bill Richardson discusses his work in freeing an American held prisoner in North Korea.
May 21, 1996:
A discussion about the chronic food shortage North Korea faces.
April 22, 1996:
A panel of Asia experts discuss Warren Christopher's trip to South Korea, the Middle East and Russia.
April 15, 1996:
President Clinton's visit to South Korea and Asia is the topic of discussion by a panel of Asia experts.
December 28, 1995:
The story of the arrest of two of South Korea's former Presidents on bribery charges.
Browse the Online NewsHour's Asia coverage.
The defection last week of this man, Hwang Jang-Yop, has produced new tensions between the two countries. A high-ranking official of North Korea's ruling party, Hwang sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in Beijing, where he had stopped en route home after an official trip to Japan. Dozens of Chinese police have taken up positions around the embassy, which has also been under heavy surveillance from North Korean security agents.
And yesterday, South Korea declared a terrorism alert after another incident involving a defector. Lee Hwang Yang, who defected from North Korea in 1982, was shot and critically wounded at his apartment in Seoul. A South Korean cabinet minister said the shooting may be a retaliation for the events in Beijing. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had this to say about the current tensions.
SAMUEL "SANDY" BERGER, National Security Advisor: (Yesterday) America's security and prosperity requires that we look not only West but East. Events of the past few days underscored the Korean Peninsula remains the last frontier of the Cold War and that our presence there and our security alliance with South Korea must remain steadfast.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Late today officials traveling with Secretary of State in Europe said the defector incidents would not derail the U.S. initiative to ease tension on the peninsula. State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns said food aid and other programs between the U.S. and the North would go forward, and the South Korean spokesman made a similar announcement about its food aid for the North. For more on this we turn to Selig Harrison, who is a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and William Taylor, senior vice president for international security affairs and director of political military studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you both for being with us.
Mr. Harrison, you know the defector who is currently in the Beijing embassy of the South Koreans. His name is Wang Jang Yop. Can you give us have any insight into why he has defected or has he defected at all in your view?
SELIG HARRISON, Woodrow Wilson Center: I think he has defected, and I think the reasons are more personal than they are really political. This is a man of 74. In his statement he says, "I don't have much time left in life. My life has been a political failure." I think that he's an idealist. I met him four times. He's an intellectual. He's not a hardened politician or a political power broker. He's really not very important in the political machine of the ruling workers party in Korea. And since the death of Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader with whom he is very close, he has been kind of left out under the regime of Kim Jung Il, although he has had honorific positions, reflecting the fact that he is a respected intellectual. The point I think is he sees himself as making a grand gesture, playing an historic role of unifying the Korean Peninsula, going to South Korea, and trying to do what hasn't been possible in the stalemated relationship. The problem is will South Korea let him do that? South Korea is used to taking defectors and manipulating them in propaganda terms, getting them to say many things about North Korea. If you look at what Hwang Jang-Yop said in his statement, he did not attack Kim Jung Il. He focused on what he wants to do to bring the two Korea's together. I think he's going to be a disappointed man. He's not going to be given the kind of freedom that he wants to talk to people in South Korea and to talk without everything being manipulated by the South Korean intelligence agencies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Taylor, what do you think about this defection? Do you agree with that analysis, and what do you think it says about the North Korean government?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, I know the man too. I met him at Kim Il Sung University. President Kim Il Sung, who I knew fairly well, seven hours with him, made sure that I got the right ideological perspective from the man who can do it, Hwang. But I disagree with Sig Harrison, my colleague and friend. It's not all personal versus political. It's both. I see a generational thing happening in North Korea. The son, Kim Jung Il, who celebrated his 51st birthday yesterday, I think is looked on by the old guard who grew up with his father, led the revolution against the Japanese, threw them off the peninsula, as they say beat the United States and the South Korean imperialists during the Korean War, are running scared. They don't trust that kid. They don't think he knows anything. I think probably they believe most of the rumors about him are true, and let's say what the rumors are. He's a womanizer. He's a drunk. He never pays attention to policy. The guy is a loony bins. And the old guard now sees themselves being shoved out by this guy. Two weeks ago, five very young military officers were promoted to three- and four-star general by Kim Jung Il, the now supreme commander of the military who never served a day in the military in his life. Things have topsy-turvied. The old guard is looking at things they don't like, and they're going to get out of there. And I think Hwang is just one of the first moving out, but there's one other thing. Hwang is locked up in that South Korean compound in Beijing. No matter what happens, if the South Koreans try to move him, you've got some real concerns. They try to take him out by helicopter, anybody—shoulder-held surface to air missile can shoot that helicopter down. You can hide one of those under a long coat. If they moved him by armored vehicle, an RPG-7 anti-tank rocket, small enough to be under a coat, can take that out. If he moves, it's going to be a crisis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You say that even though the North Korean government today said if he is, in fact, a defector, if the Chinese say he, in fact, wasn't kidnapped, let him go, we consider him a traitor?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: Easy to say, that sounds good to the United States, but let's see what happens if the South Koreans actually try to move him from the compound on that long road to the Beijing Airport.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Harrison.
SELIG HARRISON: I do not think that this is going to lead to a whole series of defections and the destabilizing of the North Korean regime. It's very demoralizing for them to have a respected intellectual like this defect, but I don't think it's going to be destabilizing because he's not an important political figure in the regime. He's a former professor of philosophy, was president of the university, as Bill said. He's an--out of sync with this young crowd of hustlers around Kim Jung Il, and in that I think Bill's absolutely right. There certainly are political reasons. I think the personal reasons are governing. But I agree that there are important political reasons. This is a man who was the leader of the reform elements in North Korea, one of the most active, intellectual reform advocates in North Korea, Hwang Jang-Yop. He faces a situation in which Kim Jung Il isn't strong enough to control the entrenched old guard in North Korea. There's a lot of indecision. They're trying to move in a reform direction but not very fast, and meanwhile, famine is stalking the land, and it's a dangerous situation. So he certainly is disillusioned with the system, with the pace of reform. The United States hasn't helped very much. It's undercut many of the people like Hwang Jang-Yop because we're not living up to the provision of the nuclear freeze agreement of 1994 that said that economic sanctions against North Korea imposed during the Cold War would be removed. We have our hawks and our doves too, and the hawks don't want to do anything that might keep North Korea going. A lot of people in South Korea and in Washington want to see to see North collapse. So people like Hwang Jang-Yop have been isolated. So, political reasons explaining why he's disillusioned, but I don't think he's an important political factor in North Korea, and it's not going to collapse tomorrow morning.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think, Mr. Taylor, that even with this sort of mini-crisis in China the shooting of a defector, even though we don't know who did the shooting, in South Korea, and yet, South Korea and the United States both made a special point today of announcing they would resume food aid shipments, and South Korea said they would go ahead with site surveys as part of this nuclear agreement that Mr. Harrison referred to, site surveys for building a light water reactor, which would replace the reactors that make it possible to build nuclear weapons. So, at the same time there's a crisis there's also a real move forward in the diplomatic sphere.
WILLIAM TAYLOR: The North Koreans are not fools. Forty-eight hours ago they put themselves in a box when they said that Hwang had been abducted in Beijing, and they would retaliate a hundred or a thousandfold in their kind of rhetoric. And now they can say, without taking credit for shooting Lee, they have retaliated. Now, they can have it both ways, but if Hwang, who is in – the message will affect Hwang, too. You defect, and this is going to happen to you, we'll get you, we'll kill you, but at the same time now, the dual message to the United States is well, if he's really a defector, we wash our hands of him, and let's go on with the business at hand, and that is give us food aid, prop up the regime, give us oil, prop up the regime.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you think that they're getting too much?
WILLIAM TAYLOR: They know the Clinton administration like a harp, and every time they move to the brink, they back off, they get concessions from the U.S., and that's something I don't think Sig and I agree on. The basic problem with the North Koreans is not that we haven't in the October 1994 nuclear framework accord taken away sanctions against North Korea. The problem is they have not lived up to what they signed in the agreement to go back in a North-South dialogue. They said they would "when the atmosphere was appropriate." Guess who will decide when the atmosphere is appropriate: the North Koreans.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We have a short amount of time for your response.
SELIG HARRISON: The United States--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thirty seconds.
SELIG HARRISON: The United States' interest in the Korean Peninsula is stability; it is not in having a collapse of North Korea that could lead to refugees, boat people, billions of dollars of reconstruction money. It is in our interest to cooperate with North Korea if it's willing to undertake reforms, if it's willing to liberalize its foreign economic relations, and it is. And that's why we should be, as we are, pushing North Korea to come into dialogue with the United States and with South Korea. North Korea wants that dialogue, and that's why I think we're going to engage North Korea--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's all the time we have.
WILLIAM TAYLOR: That's like engaging a rattlesnake.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you, gentlemen, very much.