The highest-ranking official ever to defect from North Korea is calling for "ideological warfare" against the hardline regime and says China could easily bring it down if it chose to.
Hwang Jang-Yop, who is at the top of North Korean agents' hit-list, is paying a tightly guarded visit to Washington as he seeks support from US policymakers and activists against his former government.
The 87-year-old mentored leader Kim Jong-Il, presided over North Korea's parliament and is credited with developing the regime's ideology of "juche," or self-reliance. He defected to South Korea in 1997 on a visit to Beijing.
Speaking Wednesday to a small audience at a think-tank, Hwang discounted the options either of attacking or engaging Kim's regime and said it was instead crucial to show North Koreans the human rights violations around them.
"The solution is ideological warfare. We need to focus on the people of North Korea and alert them to the human rights abuses that are taking place," he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Simply trying to make Kim Jong-Il die would not be the solution," he said, referring to speculation about the health of the "Dear Leader."
"We don't need to resort to force. We need to use ideology and markets and diplomacy. We need to take a lesson from the Cold War."
He said that North Korea's bellicose threats to attack the United States, South Korea and Japan were nothing but bluster, adding tongue-in-cheek: "Don't disclose this. I'm the only person who knows this secret of North Korea, so they would know it came from me."
Hwang, whose every step was followed by a security detail, sported a neatly pressed Western suit and spoke lucidly but showed signs of his age, struggling with his translation headset and occasionally repeating his remarks.
Asked to explain his idea for ideological warfare, he acknowledged that few North Koreans had access to outside media and vaguely suggested a model of building resistance in the mountains as during Japan's occupation of Korea.
He warned against too rapid of change in North Korea, saying: "For a country that's starving, if you give them too big a steak you don't know if they can eat it or even if it's good for them."
While unsure about Kim's current health, Hwang revealed that he did not find Kim to be the anti-American ideologue as it would appear from North Korean propaganda.
"Deep down, when he's talking in private with his henchmen, he never speaks ill about the United States," he said. "Rather, privately it's China that he talks about in a very bad spirit."
"China is the lifeline of North Korea," he said. "If China ever broke with North Korea, it would be the death knell for the regime."
China is the main economic and political supporter of Pyongyang, but many Koreans historically have been suspicious of Beijing's intentions on the peninsula.
South Korea has said it expects Kim to visit China soon, raising hopes in Washington that Beijing will put pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear program as six-nation talks languish.
Hwang last appeared in the United States in 2003 when he testified before Congress about poor human rights conditions in North Korea. Pyongyang branded him "human scum" and reportedly assigned agents to kill him in Seoul.
The defector declined to launch personal jibes against Kim.
"What point is there in bringing up his personal life? People would get the wrong idea about my motivations," he said.
"Look at his policy -- he starved to death three million people," he said, giving a high estimate for the number of victims from a devastating famine in the 1990s.
Hwang said the famine 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.
"In North Korea, I served only Kim Jong-Il. I held a high rank, but I was a slave. In South Korea, I'm a free man. There is no comparison."