Category Archive: Jang Jin-Sung

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirely, The Sunday Times

FROM Nero to Stalin, the court life of a tyrant can be counted on to produce fascinating literature. That is the case with this extraordinary book, a rare portrait of North Korea, the world’s last hermetic nation. The story carries us from the author — at the time an elite North Korean propagandist — quaffing red wine with the late Kim Jong-il on a private island, to his terrified flight into exile in 2004.


Peony Authors appearing at the Hong Kong Literary Festival and Singapore Writers Festival, kicking off this weekend!

Hong Kong Literary Festival

Chan Koonchung



Singapore Writers Festival

Jang Jin Sung, Shirley Lee, Duncan Jepson and Su Tong

Jin Jang-sung

Jang Jin-sung

Shirley Lee

Shirley Lee

Duncan Jepson

Duncan Jepson

Su Tong

Su Tong

Jonathan Kay: A shocking exposé of the power behind North Korea’s Kim dictatorship, written by a real life Winston Smith



The great dystopian science fiction novels of the 20th Century were written from the perspective of elite totalitarian functionaries who become hunted victims of the regimes they once loyally served: Rubashov, the ageing Marxist of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Bernard, the disillusioned Alpha Plus of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, D-503, the chief engineer of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. In all cases, the real core of the book unfolds within the protagonists’ liberated minds, as they unwind the hideous perversions of intellect that are required to sustain totalitarian mythologies.


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Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, The Guardian

A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004.
A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Marcus Noland: an ethical conundrum

For nearly three decades a chronic food emergency has gripped North Korea. In the 1990s a famine killed up to five per cent of the pre-crisis population.

Humanitarian activities by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and private relief groups constitute the longest ongoing engagement between the hermit state and the international community. But the North Korean regime’s actions create an ethical conundrum which may be reaching its breaking point.

The long-running food crisis is the outcome of decades of economic mismanagement and a political system that absolves its leadership of any real accountability.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency, instead of exporting industrial products, earning foreign exchange, and importing bulk grains, as its neighbours China, South Korea, and Japan do. The result has been environmental degradation and recurrent shortages.

The most recent Unicef survey suggests that 10% of the country’s two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting. Stunting of that degree at that age is irrecoverable and confers a lifetime of physical and mental challenges.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid, impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organisations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports – in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, in the order of $100-$200m, or about five to 20% of revenues from exported goods and services, or one to two per cent of contemporaneous national income.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does

Today, the gap could be closed for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget.

Donor fatigue has set in. The WFP’s assistance requests are grossly undersubscribed and the organisation may be forced to shut down its remaining programme. And if it tries to soldier on with reduced resources, its ability to monitor its own activities will be badly affected, risking aid diversion and catastrophic scandal.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does. We should provide assistance. But we should be clear-eyed about the terms of that engagement and seek to provide aid in ways consistent with our values and our obligations under international law.

Marcus Noland is director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He blogs for North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North Korean children in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children in Pyongyang. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

Jang Jin-sung: stop funding food aid

North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid. We say this not out of spite with regard to a nation whose leadership invests in luxuries, nuclear tests and missile launches while the welfare of its subjects remains low among its priorities. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons, because the assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it.

Today, the fatal threat for the regime lies not in the outside world, but within the country itself. More specifically, this is the jangmadang – an underground economy arisen from the ashes of economic collapse in the 1990s, and which consist of market activities taking place beyond the remit of the regime’s control mechanisms.

The assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it

The regime depends on its subjects putting loyalty and obedience to the Kim dynasty above all other values. But the jangmadang has awoken among ordinary people values that are detrimental to this: the worth of individual work, of independent choices, of outside information.

This fundamental transformation from below, the notion that lives may be lived outside the domain of loyalty to the system, is the greatest imminent threat to the regime’s power – which is held in place by inculcating the cult of the Kim dynasty, surveillance controls and the coercive mobilisation of its subjects in the name of the ruling Kim’s legitimacy.

The regime lost the ability to bind people’s economic loyalty to the system with the collapse of the Public Distribution System and its failure to subsequently implement currency reforms. It allocated rights and privileges for engaging in market activities to companies held under Korean Workers’ Party or military auspices to try to prevent the erosion of its economic monopolies and to concentrate economic power in the hands of its stakeholders.

But this did nothing to tackle the fundamental structural obstacles to reform: for current stakeholders to remain powerful, funds must continue to be redirected to spending on the maintenance of control mechanisms, the propaganda machine of the Kim dynasty cult, and military threat-making diversion projects.

Even at times when the regime is calling for food aid, it does not mean that the jangmadang will not have food on offer, whether stolen from state cooperatives or smuggled in from China. When up to three million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s it was not just about there not being any food – it was about access. It was a tragedy suffered by those trapped in a totalitarian and dictatorial system with no jangmadang to turn to.

In today’s North Korea there are two rival forces in battle: the forces of the regime and the forces of the market. The former’s interests are better served by the maintenance of existing party, military and surveillance mechanisms of control. The latter are equivalent to North Korea’s progressives, who believe in a future that is possible beyond the absolute, stifling and structurally inhumane confines of the regime.

An international community wishing to assist the North Korean people should recognise that funding food aid is a channel of limited efficiency. The majority of North Koreans depend not on the regime’s munificence but on market forces – they have already found this a more successful alternative, despite a disproportionate lack of international support or awareness.

Jang Jin-sung was one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite state poets until he defected in 2004. He founded the North Korea news website New Focus International

Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory
Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory. Photograph: KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Roberta Cohen: hungry people should not be penalised

Not surprisingly, the World Food Programme’s $200m plan for reaching malnourished women and children in North Korea through 2015 may be in danger of shutting down.

Donor fatigue and disillusionment have reached a tipping point, largely based on North Korea’s spending hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars on missile tests and launches, nuclear weapons and the development of intercontinental ballistic carriers.

Yet the donors – even those the inter-continental ballistic missiles are intended to target – are, like idiotas utiles, expected to pick up the tab for the food needs of the seven to eight million North Koreans (more than a third of the population) suffering from chronic malnutrition.

That the aid will reinforce the regime by enabling it to purchase military and luxury goods is hard to counter. Kim Jong-un’s lavish spending on ski resorts and water parks for Pyongyang’s elite has reportedly cost tens, even hundreds, of millions. To attract donors, North Korea will need to devote more of its own resources to agricultural reforms, incentives for food production, ending market restrictions, importing greater quantities of food and improving its deteriorating health structures.

Even so, some donors might not be eager to help a country that regularly hurls distasteful epithets and threatens its neighbours and beyond. In 2012, the United States cancelled a shipment of some 250,000 metric tons of food after Pyongyang reneged on an agreement by launching a long-range rocket.

The most critical question, however, is whether hungry people should be penalised for the policies of their government. The answer is no. The stunting of children (one out of four under the age of five), high maternal mortality rates and tuberculosis for lack of vitamins and iron should be de-linked from political issues.

But here the case of North Korea presents a dilemma: reaching the needy has often been thwarted by a lack of access and transparency. While donors, UN agencies and ngos have devised increasingly stringent monitoring conditions, including measuring children’s arms and providing corn soy blends so as not to be diverted to the military or elite, a widely disseminated United Nations report this year found that the government distributes food primarily to persons crucial to the regime, favours certain parts of the country, and avoids structural reforms of agriculture and health care out of fear of losing political control.

It therefore behooves the UN to press North Korea for strengthened monitoring and to link its aid to long term reforms designed to achieve sustainable results. And the UN must broaden its focus beyond traditional donors to China. As North Korea’s principal ally, recent estrangement notwithstanding, China should be urged to join in meeting shortfalls and in adopting international monitoring standards.

Roberta Cohen is non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children dressed in their best outfits at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang. Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AP

James Hoare: many countries get their priorities wrong

When I was working in North Korea in 2001-2002, the WFP programme was one of the largest in the world. At that time, in the wake of the 1994 famine, WFP received plentiful supplies both in the form of food – sacks of US-donated corn could be seen at the ports, for example – and funding.

It was never enough, however, and WFP always had to prioritise. Pregnant mothers, children and the old were the targets. There were other benefits as well. It gave many North Korean officials the valuable experience of working with an international organisation, useful exposure for those who had little experience of the outside world.

WFP has always had to fight off those who are opposed to giving any food to North Korea. Various reasons have been put forward for not supplying aid, including the charges that food was being diverted or that funds spent on the military should be spent on feeding the population. There be truth in such charges but the targeted groups still needed the assistance and WFP staff worked hard to make sure that they got it.

Circumstances have changed since those days. There is donor fatigue; food aid to North Korea has been going on a long time. Other countries have equal or greater needs. While North Korea no longer faces the dire conditions of the 1990s, the state’s priorities appear not to include feeding the most vulnerable. Spending on the military, including missiles and nuclear weapons takes precedence – as does improving life for the elite. Some see in the WFP a bureaucracy that does not want to change. So the voices are again raised about ending food aid.

But the vulnerable remain. We know from nutritional surveys that lack of good food in early years means that many will be permanently affected. We also know that many countries get their priorities wrong; children go hungry even in the richest nations. To penalise those who are already suffering and who can do nothing to influence the government would be unjust. The WFP should be helped to continue its North Korean programme.

Dr J E Hoare was Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea from 2001-2002

North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city, North Korea.
North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Steven Weber: time to change tack

The single most important decision any country makes is how to divide its resources between guns, butter and investment. To put this another way, societies choose between spending to defend what they have, increasing current consumption, and building for the future.

For decades now, the world has been subsidising North Korea’s choice to invest massively in defence at the expense of both investment and current consumption. Three regimes in Pyongyang have been given a partial free ride. What’s surprising is not that donors are fatigued; it’s that the fatigue has taken this long to set in.

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation?

Subsidies can always be justified in some fashion. For decades after the second world war the US subsidised the defence expenditures of many of its European allies so that they could spend more on consumption and investment. It was controversial at times, and still is since it continues to this day. But the results spoke for themselves in the post-war European economic and social recovery.

But what good has come of subsidising North Korea’s food consumption? It’s hard to point to a single positive result. Pyongyang has done nothing but pocket the concessions and spend the greatest proportion of what resources it does have on military power to provoke its southern neighbour and the rest of the world. Including, of course, with a nuclear weapons programme that threatens to destabilise north-east Asia further, when it has a host of other problems to solve.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation? North Koreans are starving regardless and will continue to do so, because the world simply is not at present going to provide enough food to meet the nutritional needs of the population.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one and it’s not likely to be reversed unless the North Korean regime delivers something positive on security. And that’s less likely to happen if we keep the regime on slowly diminishing life support.

To gradually starve the country through donor fatigue is not an intentional strategy to bring about political change that could actually benefit the people of North Korea; it’s just a lazy default. There are better choices at both ends of the spectrum. One would be to cut off aid entirely and force Pyongyang’s hand. The other would be to massively increase food aid so that the population actually receives sufficient calories to thrive.

Both strategies have obvious risks. Cut off aid and North Korea could strike out as a last ditch effort to force our hand in return. But Pyongyang might also be forced to spend more resources growing and buying food. Double down on aid and North Korea might take advantage and happily divert yet more of its resources into the military. But it might also take the signal of peaceful intentions as an opportunity to go further in its ever-so-slight opening to the world. In each case, the job of foreign policy leaders in the rest of the world is to find ways — and there are ways — to tilt the table toward the more desirable outcome.

Some will object to the idea of using food as a weapon. But let’s be blunt: food is already a weapon. The North Koreans have been using it against us for decades, and we have responded with gradual fatigue that serves no long term goal. Better to turn the tables and take the initiative to bring about change, and give the human beings that have had the unfortunate luck to be born under Pyongyang’s rule a chance at a better future.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee,

For years we’ve struggled trying to understand North Korea and its policies and actions. But as a favorite poet of North Korea’s Kim Jung-Il puts it, “North Korea’s opacity is its greatest strength.”

Jang Jin-Sung‘s memoir of his life and escape from North Korea tries to pierce some of the murkiness by giving an inside look into the country and the Kim dynasty that has led it. A cultural counterintelligence agent and one of Kim’s favorite propaganda poets, Jang became one of North Korea’s “Admitted” when he met and (with half a dozen other “cadres”) dined with the Dear Leader. In Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee-A Look Inside North Korea, Jang tells how he got there and how and why, despite his high status, he escaped the country. Beginning with his prologue detailing his at times bizarre meeting with Kim, the book gives a first hand look at the absurdity and anguish in North Korea.

It isn’t entirely accurate to describe North Korea as totalitarian, an autocracy or a dictatorship. The country is beyond that, more akin to a feudal estate governed by sycophants devoted to serving the desires and caprice of the Great Leader. That aim is why Jang was a cultural counterintelligence agent. The propaganda unit in which Jang worked was devoted to conducting “psychological warfare” by using the arts to attempt to foster pro-North tendencies among South Koreans. His poetry was written under a pseudonym and was designed to appear that a South Korean poet who supported Kim was the author.

dear leaderThe control of the arts reveals both the power and impotence of North Korean government. Writers are assigned to create works specifically requested by the Workers’ Party, which runs the country (and, of course, which the the Dear Leader controls). To compose anything not authorized is, by definition, treason. A writer’s task is to create something that articulates the party’s intent based on pre-determined “aesthetic requirements” which, in turn, are based on the concept that people and Korea as a whole can triumph only through the guidance of the ruling Kim.

Jang achieved his elite rank through poetry. He came to Kim’s attention through a poem designed to promote the idea that North Korea’s policy giving the military primacy in society and government is intended to protect South Korea and that Kim is the true leader of all Koreans. Called “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord,” Kim was so taken with the poem that he ordered it published nationwide in the party newspaper. But poetry didn’t become a prime vehicle of propaganda entirely by design. It moved to the nation’s literary forefront in part because a paper shortage. Lacking sufficient paper to even print enough textbooks meant “the necessary tenets of loyalty to the Kim dynasty” had to appear in shorter form.

Between living in Pyongyang and his status, Jang was rarely affected by the economic dislocations caused by government policies and international ostracism. While power in the capital city was limited, Jang and his fellows received pounds of extra weekly rations. These came from humanitarian aid provided by the U.N., NGOs and religious organizations. Those further up in the hierarchy received rations daily or every three days. Ordinary North Koreans, though, received no scheduled rations. Thus, Jang saw an entirely different North Korea when he returned to his hometown for a visit. In his roughly 24 hours there, he saw swarms of homeless and starving people, a government detail which gathered corpses from the streets and a five-minute “People’s Trial” and execution of a man in the central marketplace for stealing a bag of rice.


Jang was also in a unique position. Given the work he did, the department in which he worked had access to newspapers, books and other materials forbidden to even most party members. Yet what he saw and read only indirectly led him to leave the country. When a friend loses a South Korean book Jang removed from his workplace, an investigation and prosecution was certain to follow. The two of them escape into China and, once there, attempt to make their way into South Korea. Those at times harrowing trials and tribulations make up much of Dear Leader but Jang also uses them as vehicles to discuss other aspects of North Korean history and politics.

Jang has a tendency to carry the story by recounting conversations and discussions that are clearly recreated. And while Jang tells his personal story chronologically, that isn’t the case for detailing North Korea under the Kim dynasty. Admittedly, Jang is a poet and not a politician, these matters tend to be addressed when he feels them somehow germane to the events being recounted. For the reader, though, it becomes difficult to trace government policy sequentially. Yet one thing is crystal clear. The Kim family and maintaining its control are essentially all that the government exists for. With a half century or more of propaganda devoted to heroic portrays of the the Great Leader and predecessors, North Korea is a state where a government office is devoted to Kim personal wealth, anyone relaying Kim’s words must stand at attention when doing so, there are dozens of train stations around the country reserved exclusively for Kim’s use and the language has two registers of speech, one relating only to the Dear Leader.

Dear Leader predates Kim Jong-Un becoming North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Yet there is nothing in it that gives reason to believe things will change or the life of the people improve. Perhaps one of the chief ingredients of the country’s status and actions is that it is, as Jang calls it, a “dictatorship of the mind.” Yet it’s likely that dictatorship and its effects are something we always will find unfathomable.



Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, The Saturday Paper

Author of Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung.

It was Kim Jong-il’s unclad feet that undid his divinity. In 1999, Jang Jin-sung, a former state poet laureate from North Korea, was summoned to meet the “Supreme Leader”, who ruled the hermit state with an iron fist from 1994 until his death in 2011.

Jang, then 28, had written a poem that had taken the bouffant-haired dictator’s fancy. Kim alone, Jang wrote, was “Lord of the Gun” and “Lord of Peace”, “Lord of Unification” and “Lord of Justice”. He believed it. To Jang, as to most North Koreans, Kim was not only the true leader of all the Korean people but God himself.

At a dinner, where guests devoured ice-cream clad in flames while the rest of the country went hungry, Jang was commanded to chink glasses with Kim. As he recalls in his book Dear Leader, now translated into English for the first time, Jang stood before Kim bent double at the waist in a deep bow.

Then he caught a glimpse of Kim’s bare feet. The shock was abrupt. Jang had thought this man celestial. But here were his toes! There were his mortal shoes, tossed aside! They proved that Kim too suffered from sore soles. Worse still, they contained an inner platform of some six or seven centimetres designed to add an illusion of height. Jang should have been overawed. Yet all he could think was, “Those shoes have deceived his people.”



The meeting marked Jang’s admittance into a coveted inner circle of North Koreans who had met the general. But what should have been the happiest moment of his life became a catalyst for his desertion. In January 2004, Jang defected from his homeland by crossing the frozen Tumen River to China. While Jang eventually made it to the South Korean embassy in Beijing after a month on the run in subzero temperatures, the companion he fled with did not. Hwang Young-min was caught by Chinese authorities and, on thenews that he was to be sent back across the border, committed suicide.

Such traumas seem far away on the week of the Sydney Writers’ Festival as Jang sits overlooking the harbour, sippingbottled water and basking in the sunshine. A small man, dressed discreetly in a blue suit and pale pink shirt, Jang clutches his iPhone and talks through his translator, Shirley Lee, who encouraged him to expand his story for a Western audience. Although polite, he rarely makes eye contact.

“The first time I met [Kim Jong-il] it was like I was meeting God,” muses Jang, 43, with a small sardonic smile, mocking his own past puerile wonderment. “Then the facade collapsed. The propaganda had blown him up to this pedestal of perfection and holiness. It’s ironic. If I had considered him as a flawed being, I would probably have been trying to find the good things in him. But here was a guy thinking he was not born of a woman and a man but actually came out of [holy] Mount Paektu. That’s why it was so instant. It became absurd.”

Jang not only bought into North Korea’s seemingly fantastical propaganda but was also one of its producers and propagators. In his job at Section 5, Division 19, of Office 101 at the United Front Department, the government wing responsible for inter-Korean espionage, he posed as a South Korean poet writing verses that praised the North. These were then disseminated through state newspapers to prove that their southern cousins also venerated Kim Jong-il.

Cultural control was, and remains, a cornerstone of Pyongyang’s grip on power. “There are songs you have to know by heart, poems you have to know, movies you have to see. There is a whole syllabus on repeat for all the decades of your life,” says Jang. Images of North Korea abroad focus on military goose-stepping and missile launches. But within the country it is the threat of physical punishment mixed with the all-pervasive claws of state indoctrination through film, music and art that keep the populace in check.

Under Kim’s father Kim Il-sung, the novel had been a favoured medium to distil values. But in the 1990s, when the economy collapsed, paper shortages helped shift the focus from novels to poetry, which could encapsulate succinct messages on just a single sheet of paper. Writers such as Jang worked under a strict chain of command. Art’s purpose was to lionise the leaders; content had to prioritise duty to the state over individual desire. “Anything that would be seen by at least more than three eyes had to be for public enrichment, even a tombstone or road sign,” says Jang.

The poet’s job was to spin myths. So, to help make the Kims kings, how many fables did Jang compose? “Too many to tell,” he shrugs. One, he says, went like this: when Kim Jong-il’s birth mother died, rather than dwell on his own sorrow, he provided on-site guidance at a brick factory. It was made up, of course. At that time Jang fervently, feverishly believed in the cause. “No matter how many lies I was putting out, it was all for a righteous person, our legitimate leader,” he says. “Everything could be justified.”

Today, Jang is married to a South Korean and lives in Seoul with his wife and baby boy. But when he left North Korea he also left behind his family. The regime’s key stranglehold on dissent is a system of “guilt by association”. If an individual steps out of line their entire extended kin is liable to be punished. It is estimated that 200,000 prisoners, including children, are festering in the country’s brutal gulags.

Since he left, Jang has not been able to make contact with his loved ones. When the subject is broached he descends into silence. A helicopter buzzes overhead. Eventually he says, painfully, “I don’t really care about my own life but what really hurts me is thinking that what I am saying might be having repercussions on family back home. I know I need to tell the truth but how much more do I need to make my family suffer for it?”

Visiting home

At the height of his success as a poet, Jang received permission to return to his home town Sariwon, south of Pyongyang (any travel required special permits). The journey marked his most traumatic experience: witnessing once healthy friends and neighbours starving to death, as well as the public execution of a local farmer who had stolen a bag of rice. In the “Arduous March”, as North Korea’s 1990s famine is euphemistically called, up to three million people perished.

To placate this desperate population, the ruling party penned slogans. “If you survive a thousand miles of suffering, there will be 10,000 miles of happiness,” the people were told. On television, the state broadcast a song called “The Rice-balls of the General” in which Kim Jong-il travelled up and down the country, hundreds of miles at a time, to help his charges sustained only by a single rice ball.

But Jang became haunted by the orgy of food that he had witnessed “Dear Leader” feast on. Guilt started to gnaw at him: while his friends suffered, he was given a $12,000 Rolex watch, French cognac and coveted weekly rations. Favour from the top literally meant the difference between life and death.

Back in Pyongyang, Jang ferociously read the South Korean newspapers and books stored in his office which only he, and a few others, had access to for their work. The documents – many of which had whole passages criticising Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il blacked out, visible only when Jang held them to the window – told a different story to the one he had learnt at home: a story in which North Korea started the devastating 1950-53 Korean War, which divided the nation; a story in which Kim Jong-il was a despotic tyrant, not a supreme fatherly being.

Jang’s mistake – or his deliverance – was to surreptitiously pass one of these forbidden books to his friend Hwang Young-min. When Hwang lost the book on a crowded subway, a crime punishable by death, the pair decided they had no choice but to flee. The only option to give his family a chance at life, says Jang, was to leave without telling a soul.

Hwang’s subsequent suicide – he chose death rather than the gulag – was not an individual event but “just one of many millions of psychological deaths, emotional deaths, real deaths that North Koreans have to deal with every day,” says Jang. He adds: “I am a North Korean who made it and he is a North Korean who did not, so I need to live on behalf of him, I need to do what he cannot do, I need to give his voice back because he is unable to speak now.”

If Dear Leader is a personal ode to lost friends, it also promises to be an insider’s account of North Korea delivered from a court poet with key access to leaders. As with all North Korean defectors, it is impossible to verify Jang’s story; some North Korea watchers fear that he may have exaggerated his past influence and proximity to power. There is also no way to substantiate large swaths of his more far-fetched claims: for example, that Kim Jong-il had a team of 3000 food engineers working solely on finding recipes to extend his lifespan. “Even in North Korea, I doubt poets have quite the political access required for the analysis he provides,” notes Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.

The jury on whether Dear Leader is an accurate portrayal of a state gone mad or an aggrandised version of events will not be out until the hermit state eventually opens up. Until then Jang must be taken on trust. His book has already created waves. But for the author, every success brings with it pangs of regret. He worries that attention might increase atrocities on his loved ones back home. And not only there. In Seoul, where Jang worked as an intelligence analyst, he lives under the shadow of 24/7 police protection.

Change, if it does come, will be from below, Jang insists. Ordinary North Koreans today are caught up in what he calls “the South Korean wave”: they emulate South Korean fashion or secretly listen to South Korean soap operas smuggled across the border. Flourishing black markets have given the people confidence to barter and trade. “North Korea does not change because the leaders decide to be nicer and give up their power – it changes because of the South Korean wave and market economy,” he rails, frustration creeping into his voice.

He continues: “The problem is not that people’s hearts and minds aren’t open. It’s because you are in a chain gang and when you jump of a cliff, your wife, baby and family comes with you. That is what is stopping North Korea from reforming.”

Jang jumped. Was it worth it? Was it worth risking his own life, his relatives’ lives, his friend’s life, and now, if he is to be believed, his new family’s lives as he survives under the constant threat of assassination from a regime angry that he has revealed its secrets to the world?

He clasps the chair with both hands and turns to look at the water. He shakes his head. “I don’t want to escape, I don’t need to escape, I don’t need to kill myself, I can deal with it, but also my conscience won’t leave me alone. If I shut up it is because I have given in. By shutting up I am making a decision.”

It was not always an obvious decision. Jang recalls that when he first arrived in South Korea he pretended that he was from a region of the country with a similar accent to the North. But, he says, “I felt really oppressed by that lie. I’m not South Korean, this is not my history. So I said: ‘I’m from Pyongyang. I am a North Korean who has come here because I cannot speak freely in my own country. One day, when I can, I will go home again.’”