Category Archive: Jang Jin-Sung

Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, New Focus

The sources in North Korea that provided us with details of events leading up to Jang Song-thaek’s purge in November 2013 have now given us information that provides crucial insight into the events leading up to his execution and the current configuration of power in the nation.

It has been revealed that in early 2013, Jang Song-thaek dispatched a letter to the Chinese leadership, explaining that he desired to instigate changes to the North Korean system such that its pivot of power would move away from the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and towards the DPRK government, as overseen by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

This letter and its contents is said to have served as the decisive evidence that led to the removal of Jang Song-thaek from his post in the enlarged Politburo meeting, called by the KWP Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) in early December of last year.

In the course of the four days of investigations and interrogations by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) that followed, details regarding the intent behind the dispatch, the date and method of its initial delivery, and Jang Song-thaek’s subsequent confidential exchanges with China are said to have been established.

Moreover, the judgement that Jang Song-thaek committed “anti-Party and anti-revolutionary acts” is said to have been passed on the basis of his intent to serve as the Prime Minister of the DPRK government. He was consequently sent for immediate execution.

The proceedings of the Ministry of State Security investigation were circulated among those who attended the enlarged Politburo meeting that removed Jang Song-thaek from his post.

Jang Song-thaek’s letter, the contents of which were disclosed in the enlarged Politburo meeting, reportedly claimed that ‘The greatest achievement of Comrade Kim Il-sung was that he established and developed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into a nation more wealthy and powerful than southern Chosun [South Korea]’.

The letter reasoned that ‘Comrade Kim Il-sung ruled through a government overseen by the Prime Minister and Cabinet in order to develop the nation’s light industry and agriculture, while maintaining the military industry as top priority’. It went on to assert that ‘In our current Party-pivoted system, the structures of the state are organised in such a way that everything must work at a lower priority than the Party’s ideological efforts.’

At the founding and in the early days of North Korea, the KWP was more akin to a “regional branch” that received absolute guidance and supervision from the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of the Soviet Union. During those years, the Cabinet and government was the main power, with Kim Il-sung’s associates in key government positions; but following Kim Jong-il’s rise to power through the Party since the 80s, the country has functioned as a KWP-pivoted system.

In the statement of the enlarged Politburo meeting, it was concluded that Jang Song-thaek’s intent had been to challenge Kim Jong-un’s rule by means of his plan to become Prime Minister; in the letter, Jang Song-thaek had explained that he wanted to develop the North Korean economy using the Cabinet and government as a pivot, in order to stabilise Kim Jong-un’s rule and maintain the current regime.

Jang Song-thaek had stated that his intention was to improve the independent strength and sustainability of the current regime through economic reforms, within the status quo of a division between north and south; and not to pursue unification that would lead to absorption by a foreign democracy.

He expressed the calculation and confidence that ultimately, this vision of north-south competition and co-existence would be well received by the Chinese leadership; therefore, Jang Song-thaek had asserted, Kim Jong-un himself had given permission for him to compose this letter in confidence.

The ‘Jang Song-thaek letter initiative’ said to have been approved by Kim Jong-un, and the details of the MSS investigation that were subsequently circulated, have already leaked beyond the participants of the enlarged Politburo meeting, with knowledge of it now established among most cadres belonging to the central institutions.

Pak Pong-ju speaking at the enlarged Poliburo meeting.

Pak Pong-ju speaking at the enlarged Poliburo meeting.

The reason why Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju spoke in tears in the enlarged Politburo meeting is said to have been in direct response to the description in Jang Song-thaek’s letter of a ‘Cabinet and government that has been stripped of power’. Pak expounded the view that under the great guidance of the KWP, his Cabinet and government had in fact been able to thrive victoriously. Pak’s voice reportedly broke with emotion as he provided his statement justifying the centrality of the KWP over the Cabinet and government.

KWP’s secretary for Propaganda and Agitation Kim Ki-nam, who spoke from the same platform, provided explanations of how the very history of the KWP was the history of the great Supreme Leader himself; Ri Man-keon, KWP secretary for North Pyongan Province, testified that Jang Song-thaek had tried to hand over Sinuiju to China as a development zone.

Kim Ki-nam speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Kim Ki-nam speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Subsequently, on the orders of deputy director Cho Yeon-jun of the OGD, which had called the enlarged Politburo meeting, MSS guards who had been on standby were called and Jang Song-thaek was dragged away from the meeting hall.

Cho Yeon-jun speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Cho Yeon-jun speaking at the enlarged Politburo meeting.

Jang Song-thaek’s repeated assertion during the MSS investigation process – that the contents of the letter had not only had the approval of Kim Jong-un himself but his active support – was established as an even graver problem, and led to his immediate execution after just four days.

The scale and significance of this incident is perceived to be so great among cadres with membership in the central institutions that it is being referred to as the second “Hague emissary incident”.

In 1907, at the International Peace Conference held in The Hague, Kojong of Korea’s Chosun Dynasty had sent an emissary to assert that the Eulsa Treaty (Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1905) was not valid. North Korea maintains that emissary Yi Jun committed suicide by disembowelment, protesting how the conference maintained silence regarding Japan’s invasion of Korea.

At present, the Ministry of State Security is conducting an extensive investigation, in order to establish who is responsible for leaking details that should have been restricted to those who attended the enlarged Politburo meeting. But it is thought that it is only a matter of time before the full account reaches the larger North Korean populace.

According to sources in situ, if it gets to the point where the news reaches the ordinary populace, ‘The number of people who sympathise with Jang Song-thaek because he attempted economic reform may increase’; moreover, ‘Feelings of disdain will likely grow regarding a Kim Jong-un who had supported the initiative, yet abandoned his uncle when the man was faced with purging and execution.’

In the statement issued by the MSS special military tribunal and published by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA on 13 December 2013, it was reported that ‘Jang Song-thaek had intended to concentrate his department and all relevant economic institutions into the Cabinet and government, serving as Prime Minister once the economy has crumbled into ruin and the state is on the verge of collapse.’

It was also claimed that Jang Song-thaek’s plan had been to seize control over the military to bring about a coup; and after the establishment of a new administration, he would have sought legitimacy for the coup by appealing to foreign powers and for international recognition.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, New Statesman

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes under the table.


Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters
Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters

When I was a child, I didn’t read. In all honesty, no story was as exciting as the fairy tales my mother told my siblings and me. A story that captivated my childhood imagination more than anything else was about a magic cudgel that granted any wish, as long as you wished with a good heart; I could daydream about holding that omni­potent object in my hand and forget about everything else. The early years of school in North Korea could offer nothing but the narrative of the Supreme Leader’s childhood, which all North Korean children learned according to their age group, growing up alongside him. The Revolutionary History of the Leader Kim Il-sung did not captivate me as the magic cudgel did, and I performed poorly at school.

However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even “everyday heroes” were unrealistic people, swearing absolute loyalty only to the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party, and they were not people I wanted ever to resemble.

I had the rare privilege to study western music from the age of seven – cassettes of Dvorák were smuggled in from China by my piano teacher – and I could not find any literature that spoke to me in a way that approached what I experienced through this thrilling and complex music. But what gave me aspirations to become a writer was the poetry of Byron. In North Korea, gaining access to any foreign culture is a crime of “revisionism”, but there is a “hundred copy collection” (each book limited to a hundred copies) available to the elite, so that they might receive a cultural grounding to help them carry out their jobs as leaders, diplomats and propagandists. I don’t know how one of these limited editions of Byron’s works ended up in my father’s personal bookcase, but that is where, aged 15, I found it. For the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I read a book. The words contained emotion as a melody and the plots of the poems were like the resonance of an orchestra in a hall. I was relearning my own language from a foreign book.

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone; but Byron taught me that the word could be used to describe any one of us, and that every one of us could dare to partake in such qualities. I wanted to become Byron, not only as a writer, but also as a man who might consider risking his life for an ordinary beloved – and not just for the Supreme Leader. I grew self-righteous, gloating at the thought that all the North Korean writers before me who had no access to Byron were like frogs in a well.

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.

As an employee of the United Front Department (UFD), I witnessed this project at first hand. The UFD is a hybrid entity for policymaking, espionage and “engagement” with the outside world that functions as a controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea. I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101. Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work. When it was first set up, the department specialised in conducting psychological warfare operations against the South through cultural media such as the press, literary arts, music and film. After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

My task, like all other writers in the system, was to express an institutional line, not an individual message. No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance. Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, the subject of literature has included the human condition. But under the suffocating constraints of North Korean surveillance, where the only concerns permitted in artistic expression are those of the Supreme Leader, I could not produce any writing that allowed me to feel I was accomplishing anything other than a bureaucratic task. Despite this, my colleagues in the propaganda departments envied me. Because I worked under an assumed South Korean identity, I did have some licence to experiment with straying from the legal bounds of North Korean art – at least in the exercise of style. This provided the “freedom” in which I composed my work; which, paradoxically, stood out from writing by my more careful and devout peers and led to my being admitted into Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

In December 1998 I was given the job of writing an epic poem that would promote the notion that the North Korean policy of songun – the project to unify the entire Korean Peninsula through the superior might of our military force – had been formulated to protect South Korea. My poem, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, was written in the voice of a South Korean poet who, recalling a massacre of activists in his own country, visits Pyongyang and finds protection and peace there. It so pleased the Supreme Leader that it was distributed throughout the nation and, in 1999, aged 28, I was made one of his six poet laureates.

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes (high-heeled, with an inner platform at least six centimetres high) under the table. That night changed the course of my life in a way that winning the lottery might do in a capitalist nation; but, more importantly, it granted me immunity. Not even the highest authorities in the DPRK could investigate, prosecute or harm one of the Admitted.

Unless, that is, they committed treason – which I did. I lent a friend a restricted book, the contents of which included a biography of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il written by a South Korean academic. In discussing the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family, this book starkly contradicted the official Revolutionary History. When the authorities found out about my transgression I had no choice but to escape to South Korea.

I know that no dictatorship can be successful merely by force. A dictator may use a form of religious cult to demand an unquestioning and heartfelt obedience from each individual, or a myth of racial superiority to bind the loyalty of many to one selfish cause. North Korea is no exception in the modern history of totalitarianism. There are the brutal political camps that physically shut away the lives of North Korean people; but there is also a dictatorship of the mind, the political prison where thought and expression are stifled. North Korea’s dictatorship of force over its people – its police-state system, the inescapable surveillance, the party’s invocation of the “Supreme Leader’s will”, overruling even the national constitution – cannot end while the dictatorship of the mind prevails.

The only power that will undermine the dictatorship of the mind is the realisation that it is possible not only for the regime to lie to its people, but that it has done so, deliberately and constantly. My people cannot be free until each of us acknowledges that the Revolutionary History of the Leader is not the true reality of North Korea.

Jang Jin Sung, Business Insider

North Korea’s Central Party Committee has released an internal decree urging party members to ‘abandon the Chinese dream,’ according to New Focus International, a media outlet run by prominent North Korean defector Jang Jin-sung.


The statement was allegedly issued in April during internal party lectures. The decree was particularly inflammatory in its attacks against Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China.

New Focus International:

The lecture materials stated that ‘Xi Jinping is a figure who regards the suffering of the Cultural Revolution as resulting from the repressive nature of the Chinese Communist Party’, and went on to say that ‘China is a bad neighbor that slanders even our nuclear self-defence capabilities, by taking sides with the US’.

The edict also alleged that China, “which is enjoying being in bed with the imperialists and dreaming dreams with them, is even openly critical of our nuclear defense capabilities.”

China and South Korea agreed in May that the nuclear ambitions of North Korea posed a serious threat to regional security. China couched its agreement in a warning that all of the Korean peninsula should remain nuclear-free.

In response to the memo, North Korea’s Central Party Committee has commanded that companies decrease trade with China and expand trade with Russia.

This sudden order could cause even more economic problems for North Korea.

China accounted for 67.2% of North Korea’s exports and 61.6% of imports in 2011. In contrast, South Korea, North Korea’s only other neighbor, accounted for 19.4% of exports and 20% of imports. Given these figures, it is unlikely that North Korea’s already hobbled economy could successfully transition from its dependence on China.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, Maclean’s

As a state-appointed poet laureate, Jang Jin Sung reached the pinnacle of elite life in North Korea. He spent his days writing epic poems for dictator Kim Jong Il—and overseeing inter-Korean espionage. In 1999, he joined a small clique who had spent time in private with the “Dear Leader,” who died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un. But before long, as Jang recounts in a remarkable new memoir, he was plagued with nagging doubts. In 2004, having committed a minor transgression deemed treasonous by the state, he fled, becoming one of North Korea’s highest-ranking defectors. Dear Leader is one part chronicle of courtly rule in Pyongyang, one part glimpse into the grim realities of life under Kim Jong Il and one part adventure tale, following Jang’s eventual escape through China and into South Korea. Today, he is editor-in-chief of New Focus International, a website reporting on North Korea.

Q: You started in the United Front department, which oversaw North Korea’s psychological warfare operations. What was your role?

A: North Korea is isolated. You are not allowed to read anything from outside. But the United Front department is, in part, a kind of counter-intelligence operational unit against South Korea. And it is thought that to formulate successful counter-policies, one needs to understand how South Korea works. I wasn’t able to go live in South Korea, but I was meant to live in the South Korean mind. We had access to South Korean TV, media, books, so that we could think on their wavelength.

Q: When you were in your 20s, you were ordered to produce an epic poem for Kim Jong Il.

A: Within the government there was a kind of institutional rivalry around epic poetry, which was Kim’s preferred vehicle of political propaganda. Different departments had their own poet laureates. But the United Front department had not been able to satisfy Kim Jong Il with an epic poem. When I was 27, the task fell to me. It was such a weighty thing. The theme for the poem, set by the party, was the notion that Kim Jong Il was the legitimate leader of the Koreans and that South Korea was an illegitimate government. I was meant to write my poem in a South Korean style. That gave me freedom and leeway; it broke so many rules but was still in the framework. Kim signed my poem into law, and that means everything in North Korea: the Dear Leader, the Supreme Leader. There is one celebrity in North Korea, and that is Kim.

Q: At one point, even though foreign books are so restricted, you got hold of the Collected Works of Lord Byron. What was that like?

A: In North Korean literature and culture, you have one protagonist and one story. Everything else is a variation. When I read Byron for the first time, I thought, “These are like North Korean people! They have emotions like people I know, and their lives are like mine.” It was more real than any North Korean literature I had ever come across. I cried while reading it. It moved me that literature can actually reflect reality, as opposed to a “reality” set by the state. The poem I enjoyed most was called The Corsair, about a pirate falling in love. Before coming across Byron, I thought “dear” was a name for Kim Jong Il—a quality that was ascribed to him and that belonged to him. It was shocking to me that normal people could be “dear” or “great” or “beloved.”

Q: When you began reading South Korean literature and media, did you trust it?

A: It wasn’t a matter of trusting or not trusting. In my country, there was one narrative of the Supreme Leader, a unified single narrative. To see another narrative, many other narratives, that sounded more logical, reasoned and balanced, and eroded the truth of North Korea. I thought, “Wow, this is a fabrication.” It was instant.

Q: One of your jobs in Pyongyang was to help write Annals of the Kim Dynasty, the official history of the Kim rulers. What did this involve?

A: My own task was to amplify to perfection Kim’s role in the arts and culture of the nation, as a genius who is guiding the people through art. It is so, so wrong. What we wrote would become the truth of the nation. I was terrified by the burden, by my responsibility in holding up this lie. And because the goal of any art in North Korea is to reach as many people as possible, the book was edited for TV. Even today, it is broadcast almost every day, all the time.

Q: Kim Jong Il used to say, “I rule through literature and music.” What did that look like?

A: In most dictatorships, things are done by force. You are physically restricted in movement, action, expression. The cultural, psychological and emotional dictatorship has the same restrictions, but placed on the mind, so it defines the boundaries within which you can think, and the boundaries within which something is morally good. It’s not your conscience that sets that, it’s the state.

Q: At 28, you became one of Kim Jong Il’s “admitted.” What did this mean?

A: Kim Jong Il has the authority of a divinity, he is infallible. To be “admitted” literally means that you have been admitted into his divinity. You can never be wrong—unless Kim says you’re wrong.

Q: You were invited to a dinner with him. It was an elaborate affair that involved alcohol and flaming ice cream. What was it like to see Kim for the first time?

A: There was all this buildup. We had to get on and off different vehicles and go through different security procedures. I thought, “Wow, this is the centre of gravity.” And yet, when I saw him, it was terrifying and paralyzing. I thought, “Even my eyelash doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to him.” And, of course, I was involved in cultifying him. But even for me, one of the people who had created the myth, seeing Kim in person was . . . He wasn’t better than any of us. He wasn’t divine. He wasn’t powerful. He was just a man. To actually see the man was pathetic.

Q: You were living a privileged life in Pyongyang. The turning point came when you went to visit your hometown after 10 years away. Why did that affect you so much?

A: Having been admitted into Kim’s circle was the apex of possibility in North Korea. There is nothing greater than him. There was nothing more to do. So I started to look back. Going home, I saw that all of my memories of childhood, of family life . . . it was all destroyed. It was all just famine, poverty, wreckage, destruction. There was a state corpse division to collect the bodies of beggars who had died on the street. In the marketplace, by the train station, there was a woman selling a comforter filled not with cotton but with cigarette-butt filters. How desperate must someone be to do such a thing? Other people were selling water. And then I saw a public execution: a farmer executed for stealing rice. There was just destitution. My hometown was dead of feeling. The visit home shattered me. I was back down on Earth; oh, this is reality: my destroyed country.

Q: You fled North Korea after lending a South Korean book to your friend Hwang Young Min and it went missing. You left without telling your family. Have you made contact since?

A: When you say goodbye to someone, the least you can give them is the pain that they will never see you again. I just left without a word. The morning I left, I wore sunglasses to hide my tears. I still feel guilty for it. I lied to my family to the end. I have tried contacting them many times, through different channels. It has been impossible to get through.

Q: You and your friend set off on a treacherous trip to the Chinese border, but, even after crossing into China, you were pursued by police.

A: It was surprising. We thought the moment we crossed the river, we were free. This dictatorship pursued us not just across China, but until this moment. Even now, North Korea threatens me with assassinations. I have 24/7 close-proximity police protection. More than fear, it’s just really bothersome.

Q: You write that the security guards were present at your first date with your now-wife.

A: [Laughs] Yes. I couldn’t even have an affair without my bodyguards knowing. It’s only when North Korea falls that I can have an affair freely. Of course, there is fear. But my friend Young Min killed himself, jumped off a cliff [after being caught in China]; that’s the counterpoint to my fear. I have to keep going.

Q: You moved to South Korea a decade ago. What was the hardest adjustment to life there?

A: The most difficult thing was also the most wonderful thing. In North Korea, you can only do things you are ordered to do. When I came to South Korea, that crutch was gone. I thought: Oh s–t, what do I do with my time? How do I formulate the direction in which to take my life? It’s scary. But when I started to take those next steps, it was blissful. Ironically, North Korean state ideology is Juche, which means self-reliance. But it is not self-reliance, it is state reliance. Only after getting out of North Korea did I realize self-reliance meant relying on oneself.

Q: Kim Jong Il has been succeeded by Kim Jong Un.  Abroad, we hear about his friendship with Dennis Rodman and his strange haircuts. What do you think of the new Dear Leader?

A: Kim Jong Un is like a symbolic avatar of the Supreme Leader. I completely understand why the outside world sees him through this lens of the ridiculous. Of course, that hides a more sinister reality, but that is exactly what the fabrication of North Korea is. When you look at it from the outside, it’s absurd and ridiculous and funny. What else but to laugh? But in North Korea, you uphold it out of fear.

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

Kim Jong Un uses the United States as a bogeyman to keep North Korea’s population in line according to Jang Jin-sung, a former North Korean writer and spy.

In a related report by The Inquisitr, a Kim Jong Un video game has the dear leader riding a unicorn while fighting off US imperialists. Even Dennis Rodman makes an appearance in order to come to the aid of Kim. Of course, all the gamers over in North Korea are also required to sport the same exact haircut as Kim Jong Un.

At one point his life, Jang Jin-sung was part of the inner circle who was given special privileges, but in 2004 he fled the country after he “realized it was policy that was forcing our history, our culture, and our identity to be written a certain way — not because it actually happened this way.” He’s soon releasing a book called “Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea” which tells exactly how the inner workings of North Korea function.

Speaking to NBC, Jang says that North Korea is not really a military country, nor does it operate like the old Soviet Union, but instead operates as a personality cult centered on Kim Jong Un:

“The world today still thinks of North Korea as a military country, that the military is the most important entity. But that is completely incorrect. The only entity that actually matters when it comes to decision-making or policy-making is the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), the executive branch of the Workers’ Party…. The OGD is designed to support the authority of one man alone at the top. There is no No. 2 or No. 3 person. There are no factions. That’s why the OGD reinforces the authority of the Kim dynasty, the Kim sanctity, the Kim legitimacy. The statues, the propaganda, all that is maintained by the OGD.”

State media has even gone so far as to claim Kim Jong-il “shot 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf” in order to prop up the myth of the Kim family.

Essentially, Jang claims that Kim Jong Un is almost a figurehead, but not quite since he still maintains a very large amount of power. He claims North Korea is “more of a cult-totalitarian state, i.e., a totalitarian system with a cult-building foundation.” Still, it’s the OGD that has the real power:

“If another family came to power, that would cause fissures within the OGD system. These people know this better than anyone else; it’s in their interest to keep the system going as it is, to keep Kim Jong Un in the spotlight but to wield the real power behind the scenes.”

According to Jang, Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s leadership know that the United States is not really their enemy but continue the charade in order to maintain control:

“The so-called hatred towards America comes out of a pragmatic need. North Korea needs to find blame for its own domestic power failures so the U.S. has been designated as a state enemy for that purpose. But it’s not really anti-U.S. Think about it this way, every leader’s house is supposed to hang a portrait of Kim Il Sung, but in the end every leader’s household wants cash. And the U.S. dollar is what keeps the North Korean economy going. In order to justify a power system that does not reflect reality, you need an unrealistic enemy. And that’s the role the U.S. plays, the bogeyman.”

Are you surprised to hear about how Kim Jong Un and North Korea may operate in reality?

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, Sydney Morning Herald

For a country renowned for its secrecy, we seem to hear an awful lot from North Korea. Beyond the headlines, countless articles exploring the oddities of life in the country trend across social media. Recently in vogue was Kim Jong-un’s hair, with rumours the style had been mandatory nationwide.

Last year we had an HBO documentary of Dennis Rodman’s attempt at basketball diplomacy, while news aggregator Reddit hosts ”Ask Me Anything” sessions when experts and visitors answer hundreds of questions on everything from the food to the nightlife. Perversely, we’ve never known so much about the Hermit Kingdom.

North Korea is, of course, a uniquely peculiar place, and it seems to have captured the public imagination in recent years. It stands out, even among tin-pot dictatorships, as particularly eccentric. Even in the age of global interconnectedness, it somehow exists almost wholly on its own terms. We view it with a morbid curiosity, the same way we might watch an episode of Game of Thrones. Dystopian fiction is once again a force in popular literature, film and television, and North Korea actually lives this nightmare, separate from the real world.

<i>Dear Leader: North Korea?s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths Behind the Regime</i>, by Jang Jin-Sung.Dear Leader: North Korea’s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths Behind the Regime, by Jang Jin-Sung.

But those who wish to approach Jang Jin-sung’s memoir Dear Leader with a sense of distant fascination are in for a shock. This is a book that brings home the jolting reality of a regime that was in February compared to the Nazis by former Justice Michael Kirby as he headed a UN inquiry into the country’s human-rights abuses.

Jang is not the first to try to shed light on these hardships. Nothing to Envy, the 2009 book by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick, broke ground and hearts in equal measure by piecing together the lives of ordinary North Koreans through interviews with more than 100 defectors.

It was a staggeringly personal account that went some way to dispel the Team America caricature of North Korea as nothing more than the plaything of comedy super-villain Kim Jong-il; here were real people, living real lives surrounded by unimaginable horror, yet still they laughed, cried and fell in love just like the rest of us.

Since Nothing to Envy, plenty has changed in North Korea, not least the succession of Kim Jong-un as supreme leader following the death of his father. But what does remain is an almost insatiable demand for a ”behind-the-scenes” look at the country. In recent years we’ve had accounts from gulag survivors (Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14), foreign diplomats (John Everard’s Only Beautiful Please) and emergency aid workers (Dualta Roughneen’s On the Inside, Looking In).

Dear Leader is a memoir that manages to stand apart from these not only because it features the account of an escape so dramatic it would raise eyebrows on the pages of a thriller, but because the author and escapee is one of the most senior North Koreans ever to defect.

Jang Jin-sung is no ordinary North Korean. By his late 20s he had become, in essence, the country’s poet laureate. After switching from music to words as a student, he caught Kim Jong-il’s eye with his poetry, becoming a member of the ”Admitted” – an elite group of senior North Koreans who had spent time with the Dear Leader.

As if to prove even socialist dystopias are not without a sense of humour, Jang was assigned to work in the secretive Office 101, part of the United Front Department, where alongside his poetry he studied South Korean news and literature and helped produce propaganda.

But even as one of the Admitted, he was not untouchable. Jang broke protocol to check out a banned book for his friend, Hwang Young-min. Disseminating sensitive literature is considered an act of treason, so when Hwang lost the book on a subway train, the pair knew it was only a matter of time before they were found out.

The missing book was discovered by secret police, and an investigation was launched. With police zeroing in on Jang and Hwang, they decided their only option was to flee the country.

”We’ll die either way so it doesn’t matter for us,” reasoned Hwang. ”Be killed at home or on the road, what’s the difference?”

Jang and Hwang made it into China with relative ease after a dash across the frozen Tumen River. But this proved to be just the beginning of an arduous journey along a modern-day equivalent of the underground railroad, where they were shuttled across northern China by a network of sympathisers, the ultimate goal being South Korea’s Beijing embassy en route to Seoul.

But this was no formality. Life in China for a defector is far from safe. There are Chinese police and North Korean spies to evade, looking to ship defectors back home to face almost certain execution. And then there are the human traffickers; many defectors end up sold into servitude. A ”Grade One” North Korean woman can sell for $US1500, according to Jang, to a Chinese man looking for a wife. It is not uncommon for the women to be shackled to a bed to prevent them from escaping.

Office 101 may have provided Jang with an insight into life outside North Korea denied to his fellow countrymen, but he is still shocked by what he sees beyond the border. The houses of average people are as grand as the most senior party cadres back home. People eat meat with every meal, not just for special occasions. He is so taken aback by the size of the crowd at a shopping mall he asks if there is a mass-mobilisation event in progress.

Jang’s privileged position within the Kim regime arguably makes him – at least since the passing of Hwang Jang-yop in 2010 – the world’s leading authority on the inner workings of North Korea. In 2012, he founded New Focus International, a news website that covers North Korea with reporting and analysis from a network of defectors.

Dear Leader’s escape narrative is interspersed with similar analysis of the Kim regime. In one particularly enlightening passage, Jang draws upon his experience working on an official state history of the Kim family to explain how Kim Jong-il had all but usurped his father, Kim Il-sung, by 1980, 14 years before the latter’s death.

But Jang is still, at heart, a poet, and the most moving moments of Dear Leader come courtesy of his eye for the human tragedy unfolding before him. He recounts witnessing a public execution, observing that its primary purpose was not to punish the victim, but rather as a form of moral re-education for onlookers.

The incident later becomes the inspiration for a poem he keeps hidden in his pocket throughout the escape: ”The prisoner’s crime: theft of one sack of rice, His sentence: ninety bullets to the heart.” This is a book that manages to shock and appal, even within the context of what we know about North Korea.

And perhaps this is ultimately the value of Dear Leader, as a timely reminder that alongside the absurd sideshow North Korea has become – the Dennis Rodman trips, the Kim Jong-un haircuts – there is a human cost on an almost unimaginable scale.

David Bartram is a journalist in Hong Kong who writes about China and North Korea. Jang Jin-Sung is at Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 19-25.