The highest-ranking North Korean defector to South Korea was found dead at his Seoul home yesterday.
Police said there was no reason so far to suspect foul play in the death of Hwang Jang-yop, 87, who lived under police guard at a secret address and had received death threats from the North.
Hwang was a former tutor to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and secretary to the North’s ruling party before he defected during a 1997 trip to Beijing and became one of the regime’s most bitter critics.
A Seoul police spokesman said a security guard found Hwang dead in his bathtub.
He had no external injuries, and “so far there is nothing to suspect that he was murdered,” the spokesman said, adding an autopsy would be conducted.
Footage from closed-circuit TV around his home would also be examined.
YTN television quoted sources as saying Hwang apparently suffered a heart attack. Yonhap news agency said there was no sign of a forced entry.
Former South Korean president Kim Young-sam, in a statement through an aide, described Hwang as a “great patriot” who spoke out against the Pyongyang regime despite constant death threats.
In April, the North’s official Web site threatened Hwang with death for his criticism of the regime during trips to the US and Japan.
Hwang “will not be safe anywhere,” the Uriminzokkiri Web site warned in a commentary. “You must not forget traitors have always been slaughtered with knives.”
It described Hwang as a “traitor and human scum” and said he had “viciously slandered our dignity and system” during his trips.
In July, a South Korean court passed 10-year prison sentences on two North Korean agents who posed as fugitives in a bid to assassinate Hwang. The court heard they had received their orders directly from the North’s military intelligence head Kim Yong-chol.
The North denied any assassination bid, accusing Seoul of inventing the story to fuel tensions.
Three days after Hwang’s defection in 1997, another top defector was assassinated in Seoul. Lee Han-young, a nephew of Sung Hye-rim — the deceased first wife of Kim Jong-il — was shot dead outside his apartment. Lee had lived in the South for 15 years. He was murdered after breaking his long silence about Kim Jong-il’s private life.
Hwang, a main architect of the North’s juche (self-reliance) official ideology, poured scorn on the regime in later life.
In a speaking engagement in Washington in March, he accused Kim Jong-il of starving 3 million people to death — a high estimate for the number of victims from a devastating famine in the 1990s.
Hwang said the famine had motivated him to defect and he had no regrets, despite having to live in the shadows in Seoul.
“I do love my people and my fatherland, but I didn’t have to look at statistics to see how many people were dying. Bodies were just strewn in the streets. I came to realize I couldn’t bring about change in North Korea,” Hwang said at the time.