Welcome defector from North Korea Beijing asylum: Offering insight into desperate Stalinist redoubt.

February 14, 1997

HWANG JANG YOP can shed light on the mysteries of North Korea if he reaches South Korea, and if he is candid in telling all rather than canny in telling what debriefers want to hear. The 24th-ranking member of the North Korean Communist hierarchy walked into the South Korean consulate in Beijing on Wednesday to seek asylum, setting off a firestorm of East Asian diplomacy and political speculation.

Meanwhile, he is a problem. China, Communist ally of North Korea in the Korean War of 1950-53, for which no peace treaty has been possible, quietly maintains a two-Korea policy. Beijing hosts an embassy of North Korea, and a consulate from booming South Korea, and wants good relations with both.

The defection preceded the 55th birthday, Sunday, of Kim Jong Il, who is consolidating power after the death three years ago of his father, Kim Il Sung. North Korea had announced promotions of six generals of the younger Kim's generation, which may been the handwriting on Mr. Hwang's wall. He is 73, and was Kim Jong Il's tutor. He was also author of the doctrine of "juche," North Korean self-reliance.

"Juche" is not working. North Korea is starving. The World Food Program asked last year's donors to give another $41.6 million in food aid, of which $8.425 million would come from the United States. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday in favor, "because instability in North Korea is not to anybody's advantage."

Washington authorized Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis to export 500,000 metric tons of grain to North Korea, a deal held up so far by that country's difficulty paying. Pyongyang has twice delayed a meeting with South Korea, the United States and China as a prelude to peace negotiations, until it completes the Cargill deal.

North Korea's desperation has included a terrorist attack on South Korea. Pyongyang let South Korea and the United States bribe it out of nuclear weapons development. The last Stalinist redoubt may be falling to pieces. But it maintains a million-man army threatening South Korea, which has only two-thirds as many men in arms, bolstered by a 37,000-man American tripwire. A mad act by a dying regime could plunge the U.S. into a new Korean war.

Hwang Jang Yop cannot bring peace, but he can reveal the inner workings of the regime no one else understands. And that knowledge can help South Korea, China and the United States (( to move very cautiously through the treacherous waters of Kim Jong Il's soul to find stability. If China lets Mr. Hwang go.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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