- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2010

North Korea’s highest-ranking defector and former mentor to leader Kim Jong-il expressed skepticism on Wednesday that recently reported cracks in the country’s Stalinist regime are significant enough to bring it down.

Hwang Jang-yop also said during a visit to Washington that no group inside North Korea is “influential enough to cause a big dent” in Mr. Kim’s iron fist, and the “military is the only force” that could stand up to him.

Mr. Hwang responded to a recent report, based on interviews with 300 North Korean refugees, many of whom were not part of the ruling elite, that cell-phone usage and other modern technology, as well as black market cross-border trading, have begun to undermine support for the regime in Pyongyang.

“Very few people have cell phones, and those who are found to be in possession of a cell phone [without permission] are penalized,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He suggested that a more effective way to shake Mr. Kim’s rule is to secretly send North Korean refugees now living in South Korea to the communist country’s mountains to wage “ideological warfare.” That proved successful “during the Japanese occupation” in the last century, he said.

The recent paper by Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland at the Honolulu-based East-West Center reported an increased willingness among North Koreans to defy the government by listening to foreign broadcasts and engaging in clandestine trade across the country’s border with China. Those activities, it said, also have facilitated the flow of information, and in a few cases, the smuggling of cell phones into the reclusive North.

The influx of outside information has helped North Koreans realize that their own government is to blame for the dire state of the country’s economy, rather than believe the state-run propaganda that foreign forces are behind the problems, the report said.

“It is evidence that the informational barrier is increasingly permeable,” it added, noting that “loyalty to the regime is in short supply.”

Mr. Hwang, 87, defected in 1997 and is considered the highest-ranking official to turn against Mr. Kim, whom he helped educate as a young man. Although his information about the inner workings of the secretive North Korean system is dated, U.S. intelligence officials deem it important for providing assessments on contemporary activities of Mr. Kim’s regime.

Openly airing his low opinion — and even disgust — of Mr. Kim on Wednesday, the defector said that no good can come out of the North as long as he is in power. Mr. Hwang declined to discuss the leader’s personal life, but he said that Mr. Kim “never speaks badly of the U.S. in private,” though he does so of China.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.