Monday, October 11, 2010

In Memorium and Understanding

Hwang Jang Yop has left us. He was a man who inspired many, but who, for good reasons, had a great many critics. Sitting having dinner after paying my respects at his memorium in Seoul yesterday night, I was forced to decide something I had been avoiding for many years; what do I actually think of Hwang?

To represent the basic viewpoint of some people, one blogger wrote this;
Hwang Jang-yop, the chief architect of North Korea's guiding Juche philosophy who defected to South Korea in 1997 and became a vocal critic of North Korea and any attempts to engage Pyongyang, has died of an apparent heart attack.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly had a special loathing for Mr Hwang and saw his defection as a particularly egregious betrayal. Mr Hwang became a mouthpiece for groups on the right opposed to the DPRK, and he became a valuable source of intelligence for Seoul and Washington. Let's just say he knew where all the bodies were buried because he helped bury some of them himself.

I've made no secret of my dismay that someone who was responsible for so much suffering became a poster boy for Pyongyang's critics. When I saw him speak at North Korean human rights events, I was not the only one who asked, "Why isn't this man in jail?"


Requiescant in pace, Mr Hwang and all your victims.

Which may or may not be representative of the public at large, but is a definite strand of opinion that is out there, that is clear.

So then, why would South Korean human rights activists, who are firmly in favor of bringing down the Kim Jong Il dictatorship for human rights reasons, be unstinting in their support of Hwang when he was, as a Chosun Workers' Party secretary, complicit in the deaths of a great many North Koreans and many more human rights violations?

In the end I believe it is because, and forgive me if this is obvious to you, he not only changed his mind, but because he really meant it. The South Korean people are very forgiving of misdeeds, should they be made amends of. And Hwang certainly tried. He worked tirelessly for 13 years, wrote 20 books, gave an uncountable number of lectures, seminars and sundry impromptu talks, and in the process did more than any other one person to reveal to the world the terrible circumstances in which the North Korean people live and forced the world to pay attention to what was going on behind the last vestiges of the bamboo curtain.

Hwang saw what was happening in North Korea, and decided that he could not accept it. He made a conscious choice to get out and work for the other side. Does that completely absolve him of responsibility? No, morally it certainly does not, but if actions speak louder than words, then Hwang Jang Yop tried harder than most to fix the mess he surely helped create. To fail to see this is to fail to get the point.

A friend of mine told me some months ago that her father had visited Pyongyang on business one day in 1997, and seen Hwang's family being led away with sacks on their heads. He was told not to look at the traitors, but he watched through his hands anyway. He later told his daughter it was the worst thing he'd seen, in a country where bad things happen all the time.

To sacrifice a whole family like that must have been the worst of all possible decisions to have to make, and the torment that I am aware Hwang suffered following the making of that decision was immense. Maybe he was guided by utilitarian logic, maybe his philosophical training stood him in good stead to make that fateful choice, but the very fact that he did it can tell us much about the state of the nation he was leaving behind, of that much I am sure.

So that's it. I think Hwang did his best to make good the things he did wrong, and that was all that we could hope for by the time he came to us in 1997.

I would rather, then, that we not ponder too deeply the rights and wrongs of Hwang Jang Yop at the time of his passing. I would prefer instead that we focus hereafter on bringing about a time when nobody, and I mean nobody, has to choose between the fate of their nation and the certain, painful death of their entire family. That, that, is the point.

May he rest in peace.


  1. I do sympathize with Mr Hwang for the loss of his family, and I can even imagine the frustration that the Kim Daejung and then the Roh Moohyun administrations seemed to find engagement as a higher priority than taking down the regime.

    But the man never condemned Juche, calling it misunderstood, and one wonders then what degree of suppression he thought was okay. Did he ever ask for forgiveness for his own crimes?

    Don't get me wrong, I don't hate the man, and I think we got a lot of valuable and important information from him, and maybe his own defection will eventually be a symbol or even inspiration to others in a future post-KJI world, but I find it hard to forgive someone who didn't really see that he was responsible for so much suffering himself.

    Sorry if that sounds harsh.

  2. Kushibo,

    Doesn't sound harsh at all. Sounds like a fair point of view. I disagree with you, that's all.

    The thing we do agree on is that Hwang could, probably should, have acknowledged his crimes, more readily.

    But while he didn't do that, he did do many things of great value, and I would like those to be remembered.

  3. Well, in the whole scheme of things, I don't really think he should have been in jail. He was able and willing to be useful in shining a light on the abuses of the KJI regime.

    In fact, in that same post you linked above, I wrote that...

    And if we really want to bleed Pyongyang dry and let it die from a thousand paper cuts, we may have to hold our noses and encourage more people like Hwang to disembark peacefully from that sinking ship.

    ... so I can see why similar treatment for others like Hwang would be necessary, especially if they are willing to play such a prominent role against the regime.

    But if we are to make such people poster boys for the cause, as many did with Hwang, some serious semblance of acknowledgement and even contrition for his crimes would be in order.

    That disconnect between the lack of acknowledge and contrition on the one hand and the prominent role he played in condemning a system he helped create on the other was what always made me uneasy about him. And to me, that tainted his otherwise worthy (and valuable) post-defection life.

  4. As a postscript to this story, I was at Hwang's funeral today in Daejeon, where I saw Kang Cheol Hwan in tears over the passing of someone he saw as a mentor. For me, that was enough, for if Kang can forgive after what he experienced, I am prepared to take my lead from that~

    That is just an anecdote, though. I completely understand your point.