Foreign Affairs

The Man Who Exposed North Korea’s False God

News of his death undoubtedly generated mixed emotions among North Koreans.  There was euphoria that one who had caused North Korea to lose face 13 years earlier was dead, but there was also anger, as Father Time denied them the opportunity to regain face by assassinating him.

Hwang Jong Yop, 87, died alone in his Seoul apartment on October 10th, his body discovered in the bathtub.  Appearing to have succumbed to a heart attack, an autopsy will be performed to verify his cause of death, since he had been targeted for assassination. 

Yop had been personal advisor to the father/son dictators of North Korea—Kim Il Sung, until his death in 1994, and Kim Jong Il.  He was also the country’s philosophical guru, authoring the concept of “juche” (self-reliance)—the philosophy by which the two Kims justified their iron-fisted rule and the country’s isolation from the world community.  Juche remained Pyongyang’s battle cry, even though it turned the country into an economic basket case, rendering it incapable of even feeding its own people. 

In 1997, Yop placed himself in Pyongyang’s crosshairs by becoming the most senior North Korean government official ever to defect.  While in Beijing, he sought asylum at the South Korean embassy.  Due to the trusted relationship with North Korea’s dictators and because it was juche’s architect who had abandoned ship, Yop’s defection caused Pyongyang enormous embarrassment.  For one so loathed, his death came, ironically, as North Korea honored the 65th anniversary founding of the Worker’s Party that Yop had helped to establish.

Pyongyang never forgets those who cause it to lose face.  In 1982, Yi Han-yong—Kim Jong Il’s nephew—defected to South Korea.  Fifteen years later, he was gunned down.  Although his killers were never caught, crime scene evidence linked them to Pyongyang. 

In South Korea, Yop emerged as North Korea’s foremost critic of a country whose leadership garnered mass support by promoting a deified personality cult.  Yop sought—as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—to pull back the curtain, exposing its false god.  His warnings about its irrational and brutal mindset went unheeded in the South for ten years by two presidents committed to a “Sunshine Policy” of appeasement. Even after this failed policy was abandoned by the current administration in 2008 and Pyongyang’s continued irrationality was evidenced last March when it torpedoed a South Korean warship, retaliatory action by Seoul was rejected by a public that had been brought up on a policy of “peace at any price.” 

Due to Yop’s relentless criticism of Pyongyang, two North Korean agents were recently sent to kill him.  Convicted in Seoul last April, they are now serving a ten-year prison sentence, perhaps wishing they had delayed for six months.   

When Yop defected, Pyongyang exacted immediate revenge.  His wife and one daughter were either killed or committed suicide; his son, another daughter and his granddaughters were all sent to labor camps.

The author met Yop for the first time in 1994 in Pyongyang—soon after Kim Il Sung’s death. 

Yop came across as a fervent believer in juche and in North Korea as a successful government model that would persevere. I would have two more meetings with Yop before his 1997 defection—each time observing diminished enthusiasm in him.  It was as if the navigator of the juche ship had had the wind knocked out of his sails.  Although it was a much more relaxed and outgoing Yop I would meet for the fourth and final time during the juche master’s 2003 visit to the US, one could sense sadness in his eyes over his family’s brutal fate.

A devout subject of Kim Il Sung until his death, Yop’s disillusionment with the North Korean system began with the leadership transition to the younger Kim.  Power in North Korea rests on two pillars—the Worker’s Party and the army.  While the elder Kim maintained an equal balance between the two for more than half a century, the younger Kim relied more on the army.  This leaning toward military might became evident with the younger Kim’s “Military First” policy and with his promotion of more officers to the rank of general within the first decade of his rule than his father had promoted in a span of five decades.  Yop feared the increased influence of the military.      

Towards the end of his life, Yop addressed the failure of his juche philosophy and North Korea’s determination to maintain the image of the Kims as gods—regardless of the cost to their people.  In 2003, he wrote:

“North Korean society has turned into a dark world of totalitarianism highlighted by hereditary succession of leadership and feudal patriarchy. The upshot of all this is famine and mass exodus of its people, while the regime spends hundreds of millions of dollars to build the mausoleum for Kim Il Sung’s dead body.”

During his life, Yop’s clarion call to address the ills of the North fell on deaf South Korean ears; one wonders, in death, whether it will gain resonance.


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