WASHINGTON Kim Jong Il has befuddled official Washington since he took office nine years ago on the death of his father, North Korea's Great Leader. American officials hope a defected 81-year-old propagandist can demystify the new Great Leader.
After defecting in 1997, Hwang Jang Yop is making his first visit to Washington. The highest ranking North Korean defector, he had served in such posts as the government's chief ideologue and head of propaganda operations.
Conservative U.S. groups have been eager for Hwang to come to Washington, but until now South Korea has said no because of worries about his security.
Another possible reason, cited by U.S. officials, is that former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung feared that a visit to the United States would set back Kim's efforts to reach out to North Korea.
Soon after Kim stepped down in February, South Korea became more amenable to a Washington visit by Hwang.
American officials and lawmakers will be curious to hear Hwang's thoughts about Kim's decision-making processes. North Korea has frustrated U.S. officials by repeated shifts on whether it is interested in continuing the six-nation process begun last August in Beijing to resolve the stalemate over the North's nuclear weapons program.
As of a few days ago, the North Koreans were saying they were willing to consider a proposal by President Bush to provide Pyongyang with security assurances in exchange for a commitment to disarm.
It was a proposal Pyongyang initially dismissed as ''laughable.''
Hwang's schedule includes meetings with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, National Security Council officials and with members of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees.
At least two crews from Japanese television news outlets are being flown in from Tokyo to ask Hwang about North Korea's abduction of a number of Japanese citizens a generation ago. They had no access to him in South Korea for security reasons.
The Bush administration is sparing no effort to ensure Hwang's safety. When word of his visit was disclosed, pro-North Korean groups in South Korea issued death threats. Here, armored cars are being made available for his travels.
In a recent interview with the South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Hwang said the Washington trip was part of his campaign to ''save the North Korean people moaning under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il.''
He envisions the United States as key to the eventual evolution of a democratic North Korea.
Last July, he said Kim told him in 1996 that North Korea had nuclear weapons. The CIA has believed for years that North Korea has one or perhaps two nuclear weapons. More are believed to be on the way.
Under the late Kim Il Sung and later his son, Kim Jong Il, Hwang was one of the regime's most trusted lieutenants, at least superficially.
He wrote in his memoirs about an occasion in which he attended the performance of a dance troupe with Kim Jong Il in the audience. Noting the enthusiasm with which Hwang applauded the performance, a companion asked him: ''Are you clapping because you really enjoyed the performance?''
''It doesn't matter,'' Hwang replied. ''Just clap like mad. It's an order.''
Hwang is certain to be asked during his travels here about what makes Kim tick.
Jerrold Post, a former political personality profiler for the CIA, believes an obsession Kim has for Western movies may be influencing his governing style.
''To what degree is his view of the West shaped by Hollywood?'' Post asks. ''To what degree have the movies he loves influenced his actions? And finally, is he now writing, directing and starring in some grand epic he thinks of as 'North Korea: the Movie'?''
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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