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Philippines refuses to disclose location of North Korean defector

March 18, 1997

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The Philippines accepted a diplomatic hot potato from China on Tuesday _ a high-ranking North Korean official who defected five weeks ago at South Korea’s consulate in Beijing.

But officials refused to say where the 74-year-old defector, Hwang Jang Yop, was being kept. ``I have no idea,″ insisted Foreign Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino.

Hwang is the most senior North Korean to seek asylum in rival South Korea. He had remained inside the Beijing consulate, heavily guarded by Chinese troops, since Feb. 12.

His defection embarrassed China, forcing it to choose between its nearly 50-year-old loyalties to ailing socialist ally North Korea and its increasingly robust economic and trade ties with South Korea.

China had little choice but to allow Hwang to travel on to Seoul. Failure to do so would have chilled economic and political ties with South Korea.

But, after weeks of delicate negotiations, China avoided a direct snub of North Korea by having Hwang stop off in a third country on his way to South Korea.

The Philippine government agreed to accept Hwang, but clamped a tight news blackout over his arrival. China and South Korea confirmed that Hwang left Beijing, but would not even name the country he was going to.

Hwang was a member of North Korea’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee, president of its top university and an architect of the country’s guiding ideology of self-reliance.

Still, the defection does not appear to have endangered efforts by Seoul and Washington to persuade the North to enter four-way talks _ along with China _ on normalizing relations on the Korean peninsula after the 1950-53 Korean War.

A Philippine diplomat said North Korea accepted China’s formula for Hwang’s defection partly because it still needs more international food aid following severe flooding last year.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Philippines was criticized by other southeast Asian countries who said the move set a precedent for accommodating defectors.

Hwang and an aide arrived Tuesday on a chartered Air China plane at the Clark Special Economic Zone, a former U.S. military base north of Manila, airport officials said.

They were met by South Korean and Philippine officials and taken by Philippine military helicopters to Manila, the airport officials said. However, other officials said the helicopters went to Baguio, a northern mountain resort.

Under the agreement with China, Hwang will have to stay in the Philippines for some time before heading to Seoul, the South Korean news agency Yonhap said.

South Korea also agreed not to use him for ``political purposes,″ a condition demanded by the Chinese so as not to anger North Korea, Yonhap said.

South Korea still expects that Hwang will provide lots of information about the inner workings of the secretive North Korean government.

The Philippines does not have official relations with North Korea but maintains cordial ties. Last December it sent $20,000 in food and medical aid to the North.

Update hourly