It has long been thought strange by some that, despite having been one of the most powerful men in North Korea for a great many years and a very close associate of both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung before him, former Chosun Workers’ Party International Secretary Hwang Jang Yop has received so little attention beyond the limits of the Korean Peninsula.
The reasons behind this apparent disregard are as murky as the fog in which Kim Jong Il is said to have once declared that North Korea must be wrapped. Regardless, the result is that as he passed away at his home in Seoul in late 2010, Hwang remained wholly unconvinced that he had even managed to get his message about the nature of the Kim Jong Il regime across to experts and policymakers inside the Beltway, much less in the international community at large.
When I ask author John Cha about this over coffee, he is quick to point out, “People in the West have the mindset that the Cold War is over and they don’t want to talk about it anymore. Hwang is unknown in the West because I think that in order to understand Hwang you have to understand the ideological difference between North and South. And that’s just too cumbersome, too tiresome to understand.”
If Cha is right then he faces an uphill battle selling his new book, ‘Exit Emperor Kim Jong-il’ (see review below). Described as a “primer” opening the way to more books on similar topics in future, it is an opening gambit, he says; an attempt to fill the void created by global ignorance of Hwang’s lonely fight against his former boss.
This Western ignorance, Cha maintains, has been predominantly due to timing. In other words, Hwang defected at a highly inopportune moment. It goes without saying that he could not have known that just a year after he walked into the South Korean embassy in Beijing in February 1997, the left wing Democratic Party would enter the Blue House in Seoul and set about instituting a ten year spell of massive aid and assistance to North Korea that would render him at best superfluous to requirements and, at worst, an outright embarrassment to the Kim Dae Jung government. But it certainly had a hugely debilitating effect on his life and political efficacy.
Hwang was immediately isolated. He had been assigned a personal guard for his safety, but the flip side to this was that, in his own words, “I’m like a prisoner. I can’t go anywhere, I can’t say anything. All I can do is write – write books.” Cha agrees with this characterization, saying that he thinks Kim Dae Jung maintained the high level of security “just to keep him out of the public eye.”
Hwang also came to a second conclusion: that the outside world was simply not in tune with what he was trying to say. “The Western press,” Cha notes, “wanted something dynamic about nuclear bombs and the things that were going on in North Korea. Hwang was more interested in discussing the philosophical aspects of North Korean life and the dictatorship that Kim Jong Il forces upon people. I think Hwang just got lost in the shuffle.”
“I talk to people in the U.S. and they’re just not interested, period,” he goes on. “I tried to present Hwang as an exiled writer, even to the Pen Club. They are the stalwart organization about writers and exiles and such things. And I tried to present Hwang as an exile, but they weren’t interested.”
“They didn’t understand who Hwang was and they didn’t appreciate anything about Korean politics, because generally in the West people don’t know why North and South exist,” he continues. “Take the case of Sarah Palin; she was someone running for office! And she didn’t know.”
Cha’s arguments make sense, of course, yet one might feel justified in saying that Hwang’s story is nevertheless old news, and that a book based on the notes of someone who defected more than ten years ago has no value in the modern debate. After all, North Korea has changed just like everywhere else, and Kim Jong Il is unquestionably very dead.
Cha disagrees. “It’s an introduction to what North Korea is actually like. I think the English reading public and policymakers should understand better what goes on in North Korea.”
In one episode included in the book, Hwang’s notes are used to recount the way Kim Jong Il hosted regular parties in which a majority of key decisions were made. For Westerners, steeped in the logic of democratic governments accountable to those who vote for them, such methodologies are hard to understand.
“Right,” says Cha. “That story helps policymakers to understand that policy in North Korea was made in these secret parties among (Kim Jong Il’s} trusted few. And the policymakers in the West, in the U.S., should understand that they are not privy to that process. They must understand that whatever comes out of the North Korean press or as an official position is not what they say it is.”
“Hopefully at the end of the book the reader will understand why Hwang defected and what his position was with Kim Jong Il,” Cha concludes. “Was that the goal?” I inquire. “No, no,” he answers immediately. “I think the ultimate goal was for people to understand North Korean society. The people and the society.”
‘Exit Emperor Kim Jong-il’ is in bookshops now, while author John H. Cha will be hosting a book reading event at Seoul Selection's offline bookstore on Saturday, June 2nd at 3PM.
For more information, click here