Reporting from Seoul — The highest-ranking North Korean official to defect from the isolationist regime was found dead from a suspected heart attack here Sunday -- his death from apparent natural causes coming despite numerous assassination attempts from Pyongyang, officials here said. He was 87.
For more than a decade, since his defection in 1997, Hwang Jang-yop was North Korea's public enemy No. 1, repeatedly referred to as "human scum" in the regime's state-controlled media.
Hwang, a former senior member of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party who taught ideology to leader Kim Jong Il, was known as the chief architect of North Korea's guiding "juche" philosophy of self-reliance.
He graduated from Pyongyang's top Kim Il-sung University, and studied in Moscow in 1949. One of the country's most powerful officials when he fled during a visit to Beijing, Hwang's vocal criticism led to numerous threats and assassination attempts by Pyongyang.
In December 2006, Hwang received a package with a picture of him sprayed with red paint and a hatchet. Last April, South Korean authorities arrested two North Korean spies reportedly sent to kill Hwang. They both received 10-year prison sentences.
North Korea denied making any murder attempts, accusing South Korea of staging the arrest to intensify anti-Pyongyang sentiment.
Ironically, Hwang's death came on the same day that his arch enemy North Korea held a massive military parade to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers' Party. Kim Jong-il and his son, heir apparent Kim Jong Eun, appeared together at the parade broadcast live on North Korean state TV.
Police in Seoul said that while there appeared to be no evidence of foul play, the coincidence of the death meant they would perform an autopsy.
His body was found by a security guard in the bathroom of his home in Seoul, where he lived under tight police protection as he continued to write books and deliver speeches condemning Kim's government as authoritarian. There was no sign of a break-in, officials said.
A former South Korean intelligence official who met Hwang last week was surprised by the news. "His sudden death is a surprise. His voice was a little frail, but he spoke with great clarity and intelligence," said the official who asked not to be named.
"Hwang Jang-yop was a symbol of the tragic divide between South and North Korea. It's hard to imagine the torment he likely felt inside. After defecting, he gave numerous speeches on the harsh reality of North Korea, which was not overlooked by Pyongyang.
"Despite his strong outward appearance, it must have taken a toll on him living in such a constant state of tension," he added.
Kim is a researcher in the Times' Seoul bureau.