The Pyongyang Candidate
Hwang Jang Yop is North Korea's Ahmad Chalabi.
One cause of our troubles in Iraq, nearly everyone now understands, is that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and several top Pentagon officials gave too much credence to Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who pushed for an invasion by exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" and by offering assurances that, after Saddam's ouster, he and his fellow exiles from the Iraqi National Congress would return to Baghdad and assume power swiftly and smoothly.
This week, Bush and Co. have an opportunity to make a similar blunder in North Korea.
Hwang Jang Yop has come to Washington. He will deliver a "major address" this Friday at the Defense Forum Foundation, a conservative group that's sponsoring his visit. He will also meet with several legislators and key administration officials, including Chalabi's chief contact and enabler, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. To many who yearn for the overthrow of Kim Jong-il, North Korea's dictator, Hwang is seen as a potential Chalabi of Pyongyang. (Douglas Chin, a Korean-American pastor who has high hopes for Hwang, told the Los Angeles Times this week, "We would like to see something along the lines of the Iraqi National Congress.")
Hwang made headlines in February 1997 when he showed up in Seoul as the highest-ranking defector from North Korea. He seemed to be a very big fish indeed. In the late 1950s, as deputy chairman of the Workers' Party propaganda section, he conceived the Pyongyang regime's official ideology of juche, or self-reliance. Through the '70s, he was a three-term chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly. In 1980, he rose to chief secretary of the Central Committee.
So here, apparently, was someone who had an insider's view of the world's most cloistered country, who could provide firsthand intelligence of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il's intentions and capabilities. At least one American newspaper noted that the impact would have been comparable if Thomas Jefferson or James Madison had defected to England.
For the past year, the Bush administration has been split, to the point of paralysis, between officials who want to negotiate with Kim Jong-il—to offer economic aid and security guarantees in exchange for the dismantling of his budding nuclear-weapons program—and those who prefer to deal with the problem by pressuring Kim's regime into collapse. And now onto this bureaucratic battlefield storms Hwang Jang Yop seeking his moment in history.
Hwang's long-term agenda is clear: to topple Kim's regime. His short-term agenda is equally transparent: to convince the United States to join his cause—specifically to reject any aid-for-nukes trade, any forum for negotiation at all.
Last week, on the eve of his first journey westward, Hwang told a group of South Korean legislators: "The key focus should be to remove Kim Jong-il's dictatorship. To give unconditional support to North Korea for the sake of peace, while leaving the dictatorship alone, would be an illusion." In a subsequent New York Times interview, he said, "I absolutely oppose giving North Korea guarantees if the North withdraws its nuclear-weapons program." He also said he wants America to lead a coalition "to eliminate the North Korean dictatorship."
Toppling Kim has been Hwang's goal since that day in February 1997 when, during an official trip to Tokyo, he told his comrades that he was going shopping, walked into the South Korean Embassy, and requested asylum. After he was brought to Seoul, South Korea's Agency for National Security Planning concluded that his defection was authentic. "Hwang is concerned that the Kim Jong-il regime must collapse as soon as possible," the agency stated in its report, "if we are to free our compatriots in the North from starvation and open the path to unification."
A look at Hwang's history reveals many motives for his views, philosophical and personal. Some of these motives are laudable; most of them are understandable; but that doesn't mean they should be adopted as U.S. policy, especially to the degree they affect U.S. security interests—chief of which should be to prevent Pyongyang from building a nuclear arsenal, and to do so peacefully if possible.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Hwang Jang Yop by William Philpott/Reuters.