A rare public comment by North Korea’s leader, who declared Tuesday that his country has no need for cowards, became the strongest signal yet that a high-ranking official may be allowed to defect to South Korea.
China, meanwhile, said it wants a quick resolution to the crisis begun when Hwang Jang Yop walked into the South Korean Consulate in Beijing to become the highest-ranking official to defect from the North.
Hwang’s defection has heightened tension on the Korean peninsula and clouded Western efforts to nudge open North Korea’s tightly closed society.
Hwang is a former tutor of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who issued a statement Tuesday that was read on North Korean radio: “As the revolutionary song says, ‘Cowards, if you want to go, then go away. We will defend the red flag of revolution to the end.’ ”
The broadcast, monitored in Tokyo, made no mention of Hwang, but came just one day after North Korea indicated that it might accept Hwang’s defection.
Kim, who turned 55 on Sunday, rarely comments on current events.
North Korea said Monday that if Hwang “sought asylum, it means that he is a renegade and he is dismissed.”
It said it has asked China to investigate Hwang’s “disappearance.”
South Korea took the comments to mean that the North might assent to Hwang’s defection if convinced that he fled willingly. The North had previously claimed that Hwang, 73, had been kidnapped.
Hwang was a member of the North’s major decision-making body, the Central Committee. The South could learn much from his familiarity with the secretive workings of the North’s government.
China is in an uncomfortable position, caught between its longtime Communist ally, North Korea, and an important trading partner, South Korea.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters Tuesday that China hoped the crisis will be resolved “as soon as possible.”