North Korea, an isolated country of 24 million with the world’s fourth-largest military and several nuclear devices, is set to hand power to the 27-or-so-year-old son of the deceased Kim Jong-Il.
The world is asking: Who is Kim Jong-Eun, and what does his leadership — if he is indeed the real leader — portend for North Korea’s future? Reportedly, intelligence analysts believe that the younger Kim has a sadistic streak, having “tortured small animals” as a boy. Of course, his father’s gulags are torture centers for humans. For a couple of years in the 1990s, he attended a Swiss boarding school. Apparently, the biggest thing he has going for him is his likeness to his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the country’s founder and “Eternal President.” But besides that, this son of Kim is a mystery. World leaders are searching for answers.
Well, what I know I’ve learned from the gamut of defectors I’ve met over the years, from former high-ranking officials down to former gulag inhabitants.
Back in 2003, in a sauna-like Seoul hotel room, I met with Hwang Jang-yop. Hwang was the highest-ranking member of Pyongyang’s elite ever to defect. Our small room was packed with translators, embassy staff, and Hwang’s handlers. But we talked for a very long time, covering the North Korean military complex and propaganda. Six months later, I helped engineer Hwang’s first trip to the U.S., to meet with other members of Congress.
Hwang had served in many high-ranking posts: political party secretary, president of Kim Il-Sung University, and personal clerk to Kim Il-Sung. He is known as chief architect of Korea’s guiding “juche” philosophy of self-reliance.
But Hwang disagreed with Kim Il-Sung passing the baton to Kim Jong-Il in 1994, and the son and Hwang began to clash. Finally, in 1997, Hwang defected to South Korea on a Beijing stopover — a huge coup. The Washington Post likened his defection to “Joseph Goebbels defecting from Nazi Germany.”
As Melanie Kirkpatrick writes this week in the Wall Street Journal, Kim Jong-Il responded by sending Hwang’s entire extended family, some 3,000 individuals — for most, their relation to Hwang was news to them — to the gulags. State media ran vitriolic reports, calling him “human scum.” And North Korean assassins tracked him, even in his late failing years. Hwang died last year of natural causes at the age of 87.
Hwang, who was a college professor of Kim Jong-Il’s in the 1960’s, said that Kim wasn’t much of a student. “He never read books about Marxism. He never read about history. He was interested in spying and military coups. He was interested in dictatorship.”
He described Kim Jong-Il as a “man who stole a whole country.” As long as he was alive, Kim Jong-Il would never give up nukes, with his biggest goal to control the entire Korean Peninsula, according to Hwang. Tellingly, defectors have described nuclear weapons as part of the Kim family “heritage.” Few believe that Kim Jong-Il would pick a successor not determined to uphold this family “legacy.”
More recently, I meet with Mr. Shin Dong-Hyuk, a North Korean dissident who was at the complete opposite position of life while inside North Korea. He spoke at a meeting of international parliamentarians I co-chaired last month to spotlight the horrific human rights abuses in North Korea.
Mr. Shin is an escapee from notorious Kaechon Political Prison 14. Born in the camp, it was where Shin thought he belonged. Watching his mother and brother executed for trying to escape, Shin told us he “didn’t shed a tear,” thinking this barbaric black hole was “normal.” He even justified his punishment — burnings and whippings — for their actions. When prison guards cut off his finger tip for accidently damaging a sewing machine, he was grateful his punishment wasn’t worse. Mr. Shin took the initiative to escape mainly because he had to — he was starving. Today, this brave and resolute man is doing all he can to end the camps.
The world is searching for answers on North Korea and its new leader Kim Jong-Eun. There are too many variables to know for sure. But from my time with defectors, there are two constants: Kim Jong-Eun will be completely dedicated to his family’s legacy of nuclear weapons, and he’ll have zero respect for the condition of his own people.
— Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.) serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade.