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(2nd LD) Highest-ranking N. Korean defector Hwang Jang-yop dies of suspected heart attack

All Headlines 16:42 October 10, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with police comments, background, reactions in paras 2, 6-7, last 8 paras)

SEOUL, Oct. 10 (Yonhap) -- Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect to South Korea, died Sunday of a suspected heart attack, police and government sources said. He was 87.

A security guard found Hwang dead in the bathroom of his home in Seoul, police said. There were no signs of a break-in at the house, where he stayed with a security guard, they said. The safe house was provided by the government for security concerns.

Police said Hwang went into the bathroom for a hip bath earlier in the morning. When he remained inside for a long period of time, the guard entered to check on him, and found him dead around 9:30 a.m., they said.

"Hwang has usually taken a hip bath between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. every day," a government source said on condition of anonymity. "A heart attack is suspected as the cause of his death."

Another government source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is no possibility of a murder.

"We've found nothing that leads us to believe he was murdered or committed suicide," Ahn Byeong-jeong, head of Seoul's Gangnam Police Station, later said at a press briefing.

Ahn said Hwang's body was taken to the National Institute for Scientific Investigation in western Seoul for an autopsy expected to take place later Sunday to determine the exact cause of his death.

Hwang defected to South Korea in 1997 after serving in a series of high-level posts in North Korea, including as speaker of the Supreme People's Assembly, Pyongyang's rubber-stamp legislature, and a secretary of the ruling Workers' Party.

He graduated from Pyongyang's top Kim Il-sung University and studied in Moscow in 1949. Hwang is also known as the main architect of the North's "juche" or self-reliance ideology and was said to have tutored North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and played a key role in Kim Jong-il's rise to power.

Since his defection, however, Hwang has been a vocal critic of his former communist homeland and received repeated death threats. In 2006, a hand axe with red paint scattered on it was mailed to him along with a letter containing a death threat.

In April, two North Korean spies were arrested for attempting to kill Hwang after arriving in South Korea posing as defectors. The spies acted on orders by the North's reconnaissance unit in charge of espionage operations against South Korea.

The two were sentenced to 10 years in prison in July.

Government officials expressed surprise and sorrow at his death.

"Despite his advanced age, I was shocked to learn of his death," an official said on condition of anonymity. "As the highest-level North Korean official to defect to the South, former secretary Hwang deserves high evaluation in that he gave vivid accounts of realities in North Korea and made efforts toward changing North Korea."

Another official called Hwang a "figure symbolizing the tragedy of national division" and said he feels pity for him, considering the hardship he must have gone through as a human being after defection.

Former South Korean President Kim Young-sam also mourned Hwang's death, praising him as a "great patriot" who has sharply criticized North Korea's dictatorship, according to an aide to the former president. Hwang defected when Kim was in office.

The ruling and opposition parties also mourned his death.

"We highly evaluate the courageous acts the deceased has shown to make the world know realities of North Korea and to improve human rights of the North Korean people," said Rep. Bae Eun-hee, a spokeswoman for the ruling Grand National Party.

"Taking what the deceased has achieved as a foundation stone, we will do our best for security of the Republic of Korea and peaceful unification between South and North Korea," the spokeswoman said, referring to South Korea by its official name.

Rep. Park Jie-won, floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, also expressed condolences, saying Hwang had a "passion" for the Korean people.

"We express our sorrow that he died suddenly like this while at the bosom of the Republic of Korea," he said. "We pray for the soul of the deceased."

jschang@yna.co.kr
(END)

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