SEOUL — In 1997, a septuagenarian North Korean academic on a business trip to Beijing told his minders that he was going out to buy a birthday present for his country's leader, Kim Jong Il. Instead, he caught a taxi and headed straight for the South Korean Embassy, becoming the highest-ranking North Korean to defect.
Hwang Jang Yop, now 80, has lived in South Korea since, heading his own think tank and prolifically churning out tomes denouncing the Communist regime to the north. But the South Korean government has kept him under virtual house arrest, seldom permitting him to speak to foreigners or to speak abroad for fear that too much exposure would upset the fragile calm on the peninsula.
This long seclusion is set to end this week when he makes a long-anticipated -- and controversial -- visit to the United States. During the eight-day tour at the invitation of a conservative think tank, Hwang is expected to talk to members of Congress as well as officials of the State Department and White House.
Critics of the North Korean regime hope that Hwang's debut appearance will galvanize opposition to Kim and that Hwang himself could become at least the symbolic head of a government in exile -- the Ahmad Chalabi of North Korea, as it were.
"We would like to see something along the lines of an Iraqi National Congress," said political activist Douglas Shin, referring to the group headed by Chalabi, a leading figure in the Iraqi opposition before the fall of President Saddam Hussein.
"This idea is still in its inception, but what we are talking about is something that could function as a transitory government when North Korea collapses," said Shin, a Korean American pastor who lives in Artesia and works frequently with German anti-North Korean activist Norbert Vollertsen. "Hwang is not a young man, but he is a commanding figure who has known Kim Jong Il personally and has a lot of personal popularity."
But Hwang's trip to Washington remains divisive, with some South Korean lawmakers here complaining that it could impede chances for another round of six-party diplomatic negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Until he defected, Hwang was considered the eminence grise of North Korea, the leading ideologue behind juche, its philosophy of self-reliance. He served as president of North Korea's top academic institution, Kim Il Sung University, and as a secretary of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.
In Seoul, Hwang serves as co-chairman of a group called North Korean Democracy Council, which, other members say, seeks an end to the Kim Jong Il regime through peaceful means.
Hwang is expected to elaborate on his ideas for toppling the regime during his trip to Washington. Cho Gap Je, a friend and publisher of the conservative magazine Monthly Chosun, said Hwang would speak about North Korea's infamous labor camps and about the need to help North Koreans who defect to China.
Hwang is coming at the invitation of the Defense Forum Foundation, and its president, Suzanne Scholte, says he is scheduled to give a speech and also talk to key Korea policymakers such as Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz.
"We are very excited. We have invited many North Korean defectors over the years, but he is the big enchilada we have always wanted," Scholte said.
Scholte first invited Hwang to speak in Washington in 1997. But the South Korean government's National Intelligence Service denied permission on the grounds that it would be too risky. The fear was not unwarranted -- around the time of Hwang's defection in 1997, North Korean agents assassinated a relative of Kim's who also had defected to the South and written a book.
In July, the South Korean government, under its new president, Roh Moo Hyun, lifted restrictions on Hwang's travel and movements. He left Seoul on Monday for the United States. But his trip has drawn fire here. Chyung Dai Chul, an assemblyman, charged last week during a legislative hearing that Hwang was planning to remain in the United States to agitate against the North Korean regime.
"There are rumors that Hwang will defect to the United States and that the U.S. government will accept him because he is the right person to start the first North Korean government in exile," Chyung said. "This issue might create problems in the six-party talks."
Hwang has denied that he plans to stay in the United States and has said he now considers South Korea his home. But he also has been increasingly critical of the South Korean government for propping up the North Korean regime.
"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," Hwang told a group of South Korean legislators last week. Li Yeon Kil, a South Korean who helped arrange Hwang's defection, said the former North Korean has been discouraged by Kim's continued survival, given the collapse of communist regimes elsewhere.
Hwang's defection also brought tragedy to his family, Li said. His wife, who remained behind, committed suicide, and one of his three daughters was killed under mysterious circumstances, falling off a truck.