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Defection Could Be Bonanza Top Official Could Reveal Much About Secretive North Korea

Associated Press

The defection of the highest ranking North Korean official in more than a half century could bring a bonanza of information about the communist nation, one of the world’s most secretive.

With all news reports shaped by its governing regime, North Korea has divulged little about what goes on behind its sealed borders.

The chance to question Hwang Jang Yop, 72, may allow South Korea to crack those walls.

Hwang, a member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, and an aide sought asylum Wednesday in the South Korean Embassy in Beijing.

Why Hwang would flee Pyongyang is one of the foremost questions asked by South Korean analysts and government officials.

Is the North Korean government on the edge of collapse? Is there a power struggle within its inner circle?

But, as Kang In-duk, head of the private Oriental Research Institute, put it: “At this stage, everything can be no more than guesswork.”

Some of the questions interrogators might put to Hwang:

Does North Korea still hope to conquer South Korea by force, as it tried to do during the 1950-53 Korean War? If not, why does it maintain a 1 million-strong military that eats up at least a third of its shrinking budget? And what’s the state of that force? Some recent low-level defectors have spoken of poor morale, lack of fuel, equipment and training.

Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Il fully in control? Seoul often hears reports of disputes between military hard-liners and a younger, more pragmatic civilian cadre that wants to open up the country.

For that matter, what type of ruler is Kim? Again, rumors circulate that he’s given to wide mood swings, engages in wild partying, even drug use, and enjoys the theater far more than governing.

And what about reports of impending mass starvation in the countryside, where people are said to be eating grass, leaves and roots? North Korea admits to suffering an acute food shortage, the result of recent floods that destroyed thousands of acres of cropland.

Could military leaders upset over the country’s deterioration try to stage a coup, or perhaps try to divert public attention from its problems by marching on the South?

Does North Korea have nuclear weapons? In a 1994 deal with the United States, Pyongyang agreed to shut down a nuclear reactor capable of making weapons-grade uranium in exchange for two new reactors that cannot. Some in South Korea are convinced it has such weapons, or is at least close to developing them.

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