Category Archive: Jang Jin-Sung

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

Writer Jang Jin-sung joined the ranks of North Korea’s elite propaganda machine in the late 1990s, even scoring an invitation to a formal lunch with the eccentric Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il. Among Jang Jin-sung’s duties was posing as a South Korean intellectual to create propaganda and write gushing poems for the dictator. But Jang Jin-sung found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the excesses of the regime with the starving hordes on the streets, and after he was caught smuggling a South Korean book out of the fortified offices of the United Front Department in 2004, he fled across the border into China with a close friend. This is his story …

A little after midnight, just as i’m settling into bed, the phone begins to ring. I decide not to answer before the fifth ring, and hope it will stop before then. “Hello?” In the silent house, my voice sounds more intrusive than the ringing phone. “This is the First Party Secretary.” At these words, I involuntarily jerk upright and jar my skull against the headboard. “I am issuing an Extraordinary Summons. Report to work by 1am. Wear a suit. You are not to notify anyone else.”

Although in this country we are accustomed to obeying even the strangest command as a matter of course, it’s disconcerting that the First Party Secretary himself has just given me an order. He is the Central Party liaison for our department. Under normal circumstances, I would expect to receive orders from the Party Secretary of Division 19 or Section 5, in keeping with my position in the organisational hierarchy of the ruling Workers’ Party. On top of that, he has used the term “Extraordinary Summons”.

Big brothers: A boy poses in front of a fresco of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.Big brothers: A boy poses in front of a fresco of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.Photo: Getty Images

We cadres who belong to the Central Party, unlike ordinary North Koreans attached to regional or departmental Party branches, know that an “Extraordinary Summons” can lead to an encounter with Kim Jong-il, our Dear Leader. When someone is summoned to meet him, there is no advance notification. Not even the highest-ranking generals are made aware of the operational details of these meetings. An invitation to meet Kim is relayed through a First Party Secretary, who is summoned to a Party Committee room that has been placed under lockdown by Dear Leader’s personal bodyguards.

Under their close surveillance, the First Party Secretary receives a list of names and issues the individual summons for each cadre, with the logistics of the encounter carried out in strict secrecy. In this situation, the term “Extraordinary Summons” is the code phrase that sets this clandestine process in motion.

Dear Leader’s personal guards lead us to a large hut, where we take our seats in a room that is about 1000 square metres. We are told to remain silent. Everything is white: the chairs, the floor, the walls. There are no windows. Instead, there are squares of green-tinged light shining from built-in wall panels.

Golden era?: A portrait of Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011.Golden era?: A portrait of Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011. Photo: Getty Images

At half-past noon, more than four hours after we arrived on the secret island where our Dear Leader is located on this day, there is a sudden burst of activity around us. Guards wearing white gloves spray something onto the chair where Dear Leader will sit. Comrade Deputy Director makes us stand in line again. We are ordered to take off our watches and hand them in, as part of the security procedure. Each of us is then handed a small envelope. The outer packaging has Japanese characters printed on it. Inside, there is a small cotton wipe that smells of alcohol. Comrade Deputy Director instructs us: “You must clean your hands before shaking hands with the General.” He then comes forward, singling me out for a stern instruction: “You must not look into the General’s eyes.” He gestures to the second button of his uniform jacket and says, “You must look here. Understand?”

I wonder whether this is intended to impress on me my inferiority to Dear Leader, but the thought quickly passes. We continue to wait as Comrade Deputy Director finalises seating arrangements. Again, I’m at the back of the line. There are seven civilians in the room, and more than 20 guards around us. We stand rigidly, staring in silence at a pair of closed gates for perhaps 10 more minutes. They are large and white, and decorated with gilded flowers. When the gates finally open, a guard with the rank of colonel marches through and stands to attention. “The General will now enter the room,” he announces.

Everyone and everything turns to stone. Keeping my head still, I focus my gaze on a point halfway up the arch where Kim Jong-il’s face will soon appear. Another minute seems to pass. Unexpectedly, a small white puppy tumbles into the room. It is a Maltese with a curly coat. An old man follows, chasing after the puppy that belongs to him. We raise our voices in unison to salute Dear Leader. “Long live the General! Long live the General!” Our combined cheer hurts my eardrums, but the puppy is unperturbed by the noise, probably used to such fanfare. However, Dear Leader must be pleased that his puppy has shown such courage, because he bends down to stroke it. He then mutters something into its ear.

Looking to the future: Jang Jin Sung now lives in South Korea.Looking to the future: Jang Jin Sung now lives in South Korea. Photo: New Focus International

I feel let down when I see Dear Leader up close, because I am confronted by an old man who looks nothing like the familiar image of the People’s Leader. Even though we are clapping fervently and cheering for him, he doesn’t respond or even seem to notice. He continues to play with his puppy, as if resentful of being surrounded by men who are younger than him. Seeming to read my mind, he looks up and my heart skips a beat. As if we had all been waiting for this moment, we cheer even more loudly. “Long live the General! Long live the General!”

He glances around the room, then strides in my direction. I prepare myself for the glorious encounter, but he walks straight past me, halting before a slogan displayed on the wall behind us. In yellow letters on a red background, it reads: “Let’s serve Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il by offering up our lives!”

He steps back a few paces, inspects the slogan for a few more seconds, and gives an order with a quick wave of his hand: “Replace existing versions of this slogan throughout the country with hand-painted ones.”

Then the General wheels around, catching me off guard, and thunders, “You, boy! Are you the one who wrote that poem about the gun barrel?” I bark my carefully worded response: “Yes, General! I am honoured to be in your presence!” He smirks as he approaches me. “Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right? Don’t even think about lying to me. I’ll have you killed.” As I begin to panic, Dear Leader bursts into hearty laughter and punches me on the shoulder. “It’s a compliment, you silly bugger. You’ve set the standard for the whole Songun [military first] era.”

I find myself unable to respond, and it doesn’t help that Party Secretary Kim Yong-sun is glaring at me. Before the General takes his seat, Kim Yong-sun finds an opportunity to scold me. “You stupid bastard. You should have thanked him. You should have responded by offering to write poems of loyalty even from your grave,” he hisses into my ear.

I was loyal and fearless. I didn’t have to live in terror of the consequences of being late for work. Nor did I need to keep my head down like other cadres in an attempt to be invisible at Party meetings, for fear of becoming the next target of criticism. I had immunity, thanks to Dear Leader, who had sanctified me after being moved by a poem I wrote in his honour. The world might damn North Korea as a ruthless regime that kills its own people, claiming that the system is oppressive and run by physical force. But this is only a partial view of how the country is governed.

Throughout his life, Kim Jong-il stressed, “I rule through music and literature.” Despite being the Commander-in-Chief of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Chair of the National Defence Commission, he had no military experience. In fact, he began his career as a creative professional, and his preparation for his succession to power began with his work for the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.

To express this in the language of “dictatorship” understood by the outside world, Kim Jong-il wielded a double-edged sword: yes, he was a dictator by means of physical control, but he was also a dictator in a more subtle and pervasive sense: through his absolute power over the cultural identity of his people. In a mode characteristic of socialism, where ideology is more important than material goods, he monopolised the media and the arts as a crucial part of his ambit of absolute power. This is why every single writer in North Korea produces works according to a chain of command that begins with the Writers’ Union Central Committee of the Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Our main task, from the moment we arrived at work to the moment we left, was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets and write South Korean poetry. To be more precise, we were to be South Korean poets who were supporters of Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. Our names and surnames had to be different from our real names, and when asked to choose a pseudonym I had used the name of the first relative who came to mind. Supervisor Park Chul deliberated for more than three hours on whether the name sounded plausible as that of a South Korean poet before he granted permission for me to assume it.

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. Because of our identity as inhabitants of the outside world, the resources we received – different each time – came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the United Nations and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean non-government organisations and religious organisations. In the five-kilogram packages that we received, there would be rice from the US, cheese, butter, olive oil, mayonnaise and even underwear and socks.

It was 1999, on a day that had started out just like any other. I was walking past Dongdaewon Area on my way somewhere. Even though it was situated in the capital, Pyongyang, Dongdaewon was an impoverished district where the city’s poorest people were concentrated. The market was shabbier than most, and vendors who couldn’t afford the rent grasped in desperation at passers-by. One of them approached me and held out some bread. “Please buy a packet of bread for 100 won. Please, help me!” Her wrinkled hand was swollen and split in many places as she held out a packet containing five little buns each the size of a baby’s fist. I just wanted to give her 100 won (about 12 cents) and not take the packet, but I realised that I had left my wallet in my other coat at home.

“I’m sorry, I left my wallet at home. Really.” She might have pleaded with me one more time, but instead she shook her head from side to side with disdain as she looked me up and down, taking in my well-dressed appearance. It didn’t help that I was wearing a formal suit and tie. I wanted to get away from the embarrassing situation as quickly as I could. But just then, several people ran past, one of them bumping into me. A throng of people was gathering up ahead, to my annoyance. I had wanted to pass through quickly, because the distinctive smell of the marketplace revolted me. Meat and fish that had gone off in the scorching heat were still on display, with vendors trying to keep the flies away with their fly swats. The ground was unpaved, and food waste and sewage pooled on the muddy earth. The stench of body odour and human excrement added to the other smells, and I had to try hard to keep myself from throwing up.

“Can I get through, please? I have to be on my way.” In the square where all the buyers and sellers usually gathered, there stood a woman and a young girl, like prisoners about to be shot at a public execution. I stiffened with disgust when I saw what was written on the piece of paper hanging from the girl’s neck. She looked to be about seven years old. The note read, “I sell my daughter for 100 won.”

The woman standing next to her, who seemed to be her mother, had her head hung low. I’d often heard of cases where a mother would abandon her child or give it away, but never had I come across someone who was selling her own child for as little as 100 won.

An old man asked the girl in a loud voice, “Child, is that woman really your mother? You can tell the truth; we’re here to help. Is she really your mother?” I watched the girl’s lips. As she hesitated, shouts rang out from here and there in the crowd. When someone shouted, “Everyone, be quiet! Let’s hear what the girl has to say!” even the middle-aged man standing next to me, who kept scratching at different parts of his body, stopped what he was doing.

The girl mumbled an answer while clutching at the woman’s clothes. “She is my mother.” Her mother? And that mother was selling her daughter for 100 won?

The circle of onlookers grew more agitated. Another voice rang out from the mob, asking the girl whether she had a father, as if resigned to the fact that it was no use cursing at a deaf and dumb woman. “No, I don’t have a father any more. He didn’t have enough food …”

The girl mumbled her answer again, then suddenly looked up and screamed, “Stop saying bad things about my mother! They say she’s only got a few more days to live! She’s going to die!”

The child’s shriek pierced the air. Some began to tut, as if to acknowledge that waiting for a certain death was worse than death itself. Looking at the mother and daughter in that place, I felt sure that we were living in the end days of the world. An old woman near me began to cry.

“Don’t look back. keep your eyes ahead,” I panted again and again as we sprinted across the ice. The river’s frozen surface beneath our feet turned at last into land. We [Jang Jin-sung and his close friend Young-min] had stepped into China, and had committed an unredeemable act of treason. On the North Korean side, a soldier yelled, “Shoot! Shoot!” The shout sounded as if it was coming from very near. I heard no shots, but imagined a bullet grazing past me, lodging itself in a tree up ahead. I couldn’t look back, because there was no way back.

Gritting our teeth, we kept going, heading for the nameless mountain ahead of us. Although my legs were moving, the mountain seemed to be getting further away. With almost every step I fell to the ground like jelly. The snow was ankle-deep, and my limbs were too weak to support my body. When one of us fell, the other pulled him back up. Fear pushed us on and kept us moving; fear prevented us from looking back to see who or what was behind us.

“Just a little further. We’re almost there,” I gasped. Strangely, I found a rage surging from within, drowning out the terror that had been gripping me. Had this narrow stretch of frozen river been all that had condemned us? Still, we were not yet free. Terror lay not only in the guns behind us. Soldiers might appear somewhere ahead, too. I said to Young-min, “Check around for patrols; you look right, I’ll look left.”

Snow, fields, mountains. There were no soldiers in this landscape. We were relieved to hear each other’s voice say the same words: “No one on this side.” Even the urgent shouts of the North Korean soldiers had faded into silence. But this exposed us to the terrifying vacuum of China’s vast emptiness, waiting to swallow us whole. China’s soldiers might be waiting for their approaching prey, hiding in a future we could not see. The countryside was covered with trees, so unlike the barren hills of North Korea. These trees would welcome and hide us.

Only a few minutes before, we had looked on this place as if it were a distant planet, but now we were standing within that other world. Only now did we catch our breath, turning to look back towards North Korea. There were no soldiers on our trail. We were seized by ecstasy. As we stood there, gawking at each other like fools, tears ran down Young-min’s cheeks. When he wiped my face with the back of his hand, I realised that I was crying, too. But it didn’t matter, because crying at times like these was the mark of a true man. Instead of saying this out loud, I made a fist and punched Young-min’s chest. He did the same to me. After two or three more punches, the punches became tickles, and we fell about laughing. We had experienced a miracle, and we were proud of our courage.

Jang Jin-sung finally made it to the South Korean embassy in Beijing. Sadly, his friend Young-min was caught by Chinese authorities, and upon the threat of being returned to North Korea, killed himself. Jang Jin-sung now lives in Seoul.

Edited extract from Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung (translated by Shirley Lee), published this week by Random House. Jang Jin-sung will appear at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 19-25.



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

I WROTE poems for the North Korean regime under a pen name, pretending I was a grass-roots poet from the South.

I wrote epic poems glorifying Kim Jong-il, which were published in the main newspaper in the North. I met Kim Jong-il twice. The first time, in 1999, I was overwhelmed and full of emotion. But at the same time I thought the image I had received of him – through brainwashing – was very different to how he appeared in person. Kim Jong-il’s words were used as guidelines for running the country. He was a god-like figure. But when I met him I felt he was much more individualistic, even a bit selfish – and I was disappointed.

Though the population was going hungry, he was using gifts as a way of buying loyalty and bringing those in his inner circle closer to him. After we met, Kim Jong-il asked his aides to take care of me and afterwards I received special treatment – the kind of benefits unavailable to normal citizens. Once you have met him in person you can’t even be prosecuted in court without a special signing off. For privileged, higher-class citizens there are three types of rations – a daily ration, a three-day ration and a weekly ration. The state calculates everything a person needs in daily life, the amount of vitamins, calories, and so on. The daily ration is the highest; I received a weekly ration, which was still very lavish.

Most ordinary people were living from what they could buy in the markets, so I was lucky to get rations. Between 1994 and 1999 I believe over three million people died of hunger. I witnessed this. I saw that most people were living an entirely different life from the elite class. I realised North Korea was the poorest country in the world, presided over by the richest king – and that’s why I began to write poems that were critical of the regime while I was still there.

While the population of North Korea was starving, Kim Jong-il spent millions of dollars constructing the state mausoleum, which shows how wrong his priorities were. When I met him the second time it was quite shocking. We sat at a performance together, and he kept on crying while he watched it. I felt his tears represented his yearning to become a human being, to become an ordinary person.

I defected from North Korea in 2004. I decided to risk my life to leave my home ­country when it finally sunk in that there are two North Koreas: one real and the other a ­fiction created by the regime. In my job as a psychological warfare officer for the government I had access to foreign media, but books with passages containing criticism of Kim Jong-il or his revered father, Kim Il-sung, had large sections blacked out. One day, out of deep curiosity, I made up an excuse to stay behind at work to decipher the redacted words of a history book. I locked the office door and put the pages against a window. Light from outside made the words under the ink perfectly clear. I read voraciously. I stayed late at work again and again to learn my country’s real history – or at least another view of it.

Most shocking was what I discovered about the Korean War. We had been taught that an invasion by the South had triggered the conflict. Yet now I was reading that not only South Korea but the rest of the world believed the North had started the war. Who was right?

I bribed my way to a border crossing and escaped by running across a frozen river to China. When I got into South Korea and finally to Seoul, the first thing I noticed was how many trees there were in the mountains. I was also surprised by how many protests there were on the streets. I realised South Korea is a country ruled by the masses rather than a dictator. I was also surprised there were so many facilities fordisabled people. In North Korea anyone who is disabled is banished outside Pyongyang.

It was after my harrowing defection that I recognised the existence of a third North Korea: a theoretical one. This is the North Korea ­constructed by the outside world, a piecemeal analysis of the regime and its propaganda that misses the political and economic realities of the country. All of us at the United Front Department – also known as “the window into and out of North Korea” – learnt three tenets of diplomacy by heart. 1. Pay no attention to South Korea. 2. Exploit Japan’s emotions. 3. Ply the United States with lies, but make sure they are logical ones. Kim Jong-il stressed the importance of these three tenets as the framework within which we were required to implement his vision for Pyongyang’s foreign relations. North Korea’s dealings with South Korea, Japan and the US always hewed closely to these principles.

Our department’s mission was to deceive our people and the world, doing what was necessary to keep our leader in power. We openly referred to talks with South Korea as “aid farming”, because while Seoul sought diplomatic dialogue through its so-called Sunshine Policy, we saw it as an opportunity to extract as much aid as ­possible. We also bought time for our nuclear program through the endless marathon of talks.

Despite Pyongyang’s deceptive ways, many people in the outside world continue to believe in the theoretical North Korea, and dialogue with the regime is seen as the way to effect change. But I know from my years inside the government that talking will not get Pyongyang to turn any corners, not even with the current leader, Kim Jong-un. Dialogue will never entice the regime to give up its nuclear weapons; the nuclear program is tightly linked to its survival. And talks will not lead to change over the long term; the regime sees them only as leverage for aid. High-level diplomacy is no strategy for ­getting the regime to make reforms. The key to change lies outside the sway of the regime – in the flourishing underground economy.

The collapse of the state rationing system in the mid-’90s was due in part to the regime’s concentrated investment of funds in a “party economy” that maintained the cult of the Kims and lavished luxuries on an elite instead of developing a normal economy based on domestic production and trade. Desperate people began to barterhousehold goods for rice on the streets – and the underground economy was born. With thousands of people starving to death, the authorities had no option but to turn a blind eye to all the illegal markets.

Around this time, the nation’s workplaces were made responsible for feeding their employees. The only way they could do so was by ­setting up “trading companies” which sold raw materials to China in exchange for rice. These businesses became part of the foundation of the underground economy, acting as import-export hubs that in time began to import from China consumer goods like refrigerators and radios.

Likewise, party officials started to take part in wheeling and dealing, profiting through bribe-collecting and prohibited financing activities. Nowadays the party is so deeply involved in the market economy that the “trading companies” are staffed by the children of party officials and openly operate on behalf of the party and military. In short, all of North Korea has come to rely on a market economy, and no place in the country is untouched by it.

The social effect of the rise of the market has been extraordinary: the umbilical cord between the individual and the state has been severed. In the people’s eyes, loyalty to the state has been replaced by the value of hard cash. And the US greenback is the currency of choice. Trading with their US dollars (many of which are counterfeit) for Chinese products, North Koreans have come to recognise the existence of leaders greater even than the Kims. Who are these men gracing US banknotes? North Koreans now see that loyalty to the supreme leader has brought no tangible benefits, yet currency bearing the faces of American men is exchanged for many things: rice, meat, even a promotion at work.

Today, when North Koreans are ordered by their state employer to take part in political activities, they know their time is being wasted. Fewer North Koreans show up for their state jobs. This growing economic and psychological independence among regular people is becoming the greatest thorn in the regime’s side.

It is also the key to change. Instead of focusing on the regime and its agents as possible instigators of reform, we must recognise the power of the flourishing marketplace to transform North Korea from the bottom up. This empowerment of the people is crucial not only to changing things for the better, but also for ensuring a stable transition to the new era after the regime eventually goes.

Increasing trade with China has made the North Korean border porous in many ways, facilitating a flow of information in and out of the country. Many North Koreans can now access South Korean television programs that are smuggled in on DVDs or memory sticks. One way to accelerate change would be by ­continuing to broadcast into the country so that North Koreans can access outside radio programming on their illegal devices more ­easily. Another is to support the work of North Korean exiles, who are a conduit of goods and liberal ideas across the border.

Talks with Pyongyang can only offer temporary solutions to manufactured crises. And I can say from my experience, they encourage only more deception from the North. Looking at North Korea from below, building on the market realities on the ground, is the only effective way to make the regime reform – or go.

I Am Selling My Daughter For 100 Won, a poem by Jang Jin-sung

The woman was emaciated

The sign hung from her neck

“Selling my daughter for 100 won”

With the little girl standing next to her

The woman stood in the market place.


The woman was a mute

She gazes at her daughter

Her maternal feelings are being sold

Cursed at by passers-by

The woman stares only at the ground

The woman has no more tears.


Clutching her mother’s skirt

“My mother’s dying,” cries the daughter

The woman’s lips tremble

The woman knows no gratitude

The soldier gave her 100 won, saying

“I’m not buying your daughter, I’m buying your motherly love”

The woman grabs the money and runs off.


The woman is a mother

With the 100 won she received for the sale of her daughter

She hurries back, carrying bread

She shoves the bread into her daughter’s mouth

“Forgive me,” wails the woman.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, Lieden University

‘Dear Leader’ – but not really

On 8 May, the memoirs of Jang Jin-sung are appearing worldwide under the title Dear Leader. Jan Jin-sung was a member of the personal circle of the former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Dear Leader provides a radically different perspective on the workings of the regime, as it reveals the moving story of Jang, a member of the elite who no longer wanted to be part of it and decided to flee.

Insight into North Korea

Jang Jin-sung (© Martin Alexander)

Jang’s memoirs change the way we perceive North Korea. Jang was involved in many important negotiations with foreign nations and he describes the actual motivations behind North Korea’s moves. This is the first time that the regime is described from the perspective of an insider, offering insight into the necessity of the inhuman prison camps from the regime’s perspective. The book presents a radically different explanation of who really holds power in North Korea and of the historical background of the present situation. For this reason, it is imperative that we read these memoirs to be able to formulate a sensible action plan with respect to North Korea.


Fleeing South

As a poet, Jang attracted the attention of Kim Jong Il and was invited into the leader’s inner circle, with all the privileges of such a position, including luxury items, food that was both plentiful and of good quality, a travelling pass, and immunity from prosecution. But Jang saw the conditions in which the Korean people lived, and his privileged position increasingly began to weigh on him. This eventually led in 2004 to his decision to flee to South Korea. There he became one of the most outspoken and eloquent critics of the North Korean regime. He also took the initiative of launching the New Focus website, which produces well-balanced news and analyses created by North Koreans themselves.


A rare voice

With Dear Leader we are at long last given the opportunity to hear a North Korean voice that is not sent by the regime or claims to speak on behalf of North Korea. Non-Korean speakers have often in the past claimed the right to speak for North Korea. As a result, the stories of those in exile are reduced to data which have to be interpreted by third parties in order to be understood. Sometimes the veracity of these stories is put in doubt, in other cases it is not, or too late: think of the hole-in-one myth about Kim Jong Il, the so-called execution by Kim Jong Un of his singing ex, or the story that he had his uncle torn to pieces by hungry hunting dogs.

Forthcoming Dutch translation

The English-language translation of Dear leader was produced by Shirley Lee, PhD candidate under the supervision of Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies, in the context of his ERC Project War of Words. The book is being published both in the US and in England, by different publishers. Breuker himself is responsible for the Dutch translation, which is expected to appear in the fall.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, Economist

WHEN Jang Jin-sung fled North Korea across the frozen Tumen river into China in 2004, he carried with him a small bundle of poems. These harrowing vignettes of North Korean hunger and suffering were later published in South Korea under a pseudonym.

Mr Jang had once composed paeans to Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s former ruler. In a new memoir, Mr Jang retraces his conversion from patriotic court poet to the Kim regime to one of its fiercest critics; from a privileged life within Pyongyang’s elite as one of Kim’s “Admitted” to being a destitute fugitive, on the run from North Korean agents in China, where he sought asylum in the South Korean embassy in Beijing. If his personal poems laid bare how the Kims gained power through cruelty and repression, Mr Jang’s latest account exposes the reach of their cultural dictatorship, which put literature and history at the service of an extraordinary and lasting personality cult.

Mr Jang was employed in North Korea as a poet in the United Front Department, an important party unit involved in organising psychological warfare against Koreans of all stripes. This made him familiar with its propaganda machinery. In the 1980s its literary output was directed at South Korean democracy movements, then resisting their own military dictator, in the hope of kindling pro-North sympathies in the South. By the 1990s the unit had turned inward, but still used many of the same South Korean tropes and idioms. Its authors pretended to be Southerners praising Kim Jong Il. To help him prepare, Mr Jang was given access to prohibited South Korean newspapers, television and books.

A paper shortage after the economy collapsed in the early 1990s led novels, a form that had been popular under Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, to be replaced by epic poems. One of these, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, composed in 1999, earned Mr Jang a rare meeting with Kim. He was admitted to an inner circle of six court poets and given immunity from prosecution.

North Korea’s leading propaganda poets were rewarded with imported cars and large flats. Officials, desperate to prove their loyalty to the Kim cult, vied for honours. But a chance encounter with Byron’s poetry (among works that were limited to a secret print run of 100 copies in North Korea) proved a delicious deviation from the strictures of Kim’s “Juche Art Theory”, a set of linguistic expressions to which all North Korean works must adhere.

As a state historian, Mr Jang was allowed to read banned portions of the country’s unvarnished history, the better to distort it. The more he read, the more he recognised how Kim had wrested power from his father. The swelling of the Kim Il Sung cult, which his son set in motion, legitimised Kim’s rule while justifying a shift of power away from his father. Under the pretext of lightening the Supreme Leader’s load, all proposals were routed through the party’s revamped Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), headed by Kim. Eventually, only those that were deemed important were passed up to his father. Kim transferred the power to appoint and dismiss personnel to the OGD. Political enemies were watched and then purged.

Kim’s hereditary succession was not guaranteed at the start. Mr Jang offers considerable detail about how he set out to usurp his father, revealing the factional infighting and what he calls the “subterfuge and machinations” that pitted son against father; even Kim Il Sung’s own bodyguards came under OGD control. The dual structure of the Kim Il Sung cult, with the young Kim the real power behind the throne, allowed the son to confound outsiders. Foreigners scrutinised the seven pallbearers at Kim Jong Il’s funeral in 2011, but none held real power, Mr Jang says.

“Dear Leader”, which includes three personal poems, is a testament to Mr Jang’s literary flair. He chooses poetry to express painful episodes, whether the hunger of a young girl or the public execution of a farmer in his home town. He paints a bleak portrait of his village, to which he briefly returns to discover a swarm of wasted bodies “waiting for death”, a childhood friend eating rice by the grain and tap water for sale. Desolation creeps even into better-off Pyongyang: a mother, close to death, and her daughter stand in a marketplace; a sign hangs from the girl’s neck: “I sell my daughter for 100 won ($0.11)”.

The contrast with China’s bright cities, to which Mr Jang first escapes, could not be starker. He marvels at the “boldness of mankind in defying nature’s darkness”; at advertising hoardings more impressive than the Kim iconography. Yet, there too, he is hounded by North Korean and Chinese officials. He meets North Korean women who have fled both their country and their Chinese captors. Theirs are chilling tales of human trafficking. Graded and priced like pigs, many spend their lives “rotting”, shackled at night so they cannot escape. They also show great courage.

Mr Jang makes no claim to speak from within Kim Jong Il’s closest circle. But as a poet laureate, on the inside of the Kims’ mythmaking machine, he sheds new light both on the dynasty’s ideological underpinnings and on what he calls “the tantrums of a defeated man”.


Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, Guardian

Jang Jin-Sung was 28 years-old when he first met Kim Jong-il. That rare audience with North Korea’s late Supreme Leader in 1999 should have been the proudest day of his life. Instead, it was a catalyst for his eventual defection – one of the most high profile in the country’s history.

Born in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, Jang made his name as a poet lauding the nation and exalting its deified master, Kim. His words soon earned him a place as one of North Korea’s most celebrated writers, and he was enfolded into the highest echelons of the state’s propaganda machine.

Meeting Kim in the early hours of the morning under a white marquee, on an island usually reserved only for use by members of the Kim dynasty, meant Jang had been admitted into the Pyongyang elite. As his country lay in the last throes of a famine that had killed up to 2.5m people, Kim gifted Jang with a £7000 Rolex watch.

“I will never forget that moment,” says Jang, sitting in a London cafe. “It sounds stupid, but what I remember most about the whole thing was that Kim was wearing heels, to increase his height, and he spoke in rough slang, not the beautiful prose we had all been taught to believe was his true voice. I realised he was not this God-like person we had all held up on a pedestal. He was just human.”

Dressed in a navy blue blazer and white shirt, Jang is in the UK to promote the newly released English translation of his memoir, Dear Leader, which he hopes will shatter “the vision of North Korea the world has created, and tell the reality of life there”.

North Korean military officers bow at an image of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a national meeting of top party and military officials in 2012.
North Korean military officers bow to an image of Kim Jong-il during a national meeting of top party and military officials in 2012. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

As he sips his coffee, there is nothing in his appearance to suggest the hardships he endured. When he finally left North Korea one January morning in 2004, without saying a word to his family, he spent 35 days on the run in freezing conditions before eventually handing himself in to South Korean foreign intelligence agents. He was interrogated before being “debriefed” for six months, during which time the South Korean authorities grilled him on the machinations of the Pyongyang elite.

In Seoul, where he lives now as one of the most vocal North Korean critics of the Pyongyang regime, he is escorted by government bodyguards for his own protection. Since leaving North Korea, he has worked as an intelligence analyst in Seoul, later leaving to found a North Korean news outlet called New Focus.

If you want to protect the people you love, you keep your mouth shut and you carry on. If you choose to break the rules, you must be prepared to have blood on your hands.

Jang says he did not tell his family of his plans to defect so they could face the inevitable interrogations about their son’s disappearance with genuine ignorance. When asked if he has had any contact with his family since he left, he winces, and answers a simple “no”.

Jang knows too well the punishments the regime can inflict on its people. In his book, he recounts details of the public executions he witnessed during his time in the North. The country’s prison camps are populated with many accused of lesser crimes than having been associated with a defector.

Jang Jin-Sung
Former North Korean poet Jang Jin-sung speaks in London during a poetry festival in 2012. Photograph: Sylvia Hui/Associated Press

“There are two fundamental reasons why most North Koreans do not rebel [against the leadership],” he says. “The first is guilt by association; if you rebel against the system, you are not just risking your own life, but those of your children, your partner, your parents. If you want to protect the people you love, you keep your mouth shut and you carry on. If you choose to break the rules, you must be prepared to have blood on your hands.

“The second is isolation; people in North Korea have no concept of basic human rights. They do not know what they should be entitled to. They have nothing to fight for.”

Before he met Kim in the flesh, Jang says he had been “wholly devoted” to the regime he now criticises, and had fully believed the propaganda he had helped to spread. “The [regime's] grip is so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans,” says Jang. “The closer you get to the centre of power the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear”.

Jang’s disillusionment with Kim was compounded by the second special reward he received for his poetry – a trip home to Sariwon, which he found devastated by famine.

“It is very difficult to travel out of Pyongyang, its borders are as heavily fortified as those of the state of North Korea,” Jang says. “[The city] is like the set of a North Korean Hollywood – the image they want people to see.”

When he reached his home town he found corpses piled on pavements. When he enquired after his former neighbours, he was told in a matter-of-fact way that they too had perished. “He had heard rumours that people were dying, but had not believed it was possible,” says Shirley Lee, an academic who translates for Jang, and works as an editor for New Focus.

People in North Korea have no concept of basic human rights. They do not know what they should be entitled to.

It was when Jang himself was threatened with execution that he decided to flee. His elevated position among the Pyongyang elite had not only meant he received luxurious rations, including French Cognac, he had also been allowed to read banned texts from South Korea. He lent one to a friend, who lost it – a crime punishable by death for both men. The pair defected together, though his friend’s fate was very different to the one that awaited Jang.

Around 25,000 North Koreans have fled the country since the end of the Korean war, though stricter security on the North Korea-China border,and less sympathetic treatment by recent conservative governments in Seoul have led to a fall in numbers in recent years.

Ordinary North Koreans have remained under totalitarian rule since Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father, Jang’s former benefactor.

Despite the belief among some North Korea watchers that the secretive state could be opening up under its new, young leader, Jang insists this is far from the truth.

“If anyone thinks North Korea is opening up, they are completely mistaken,” he says. “Can the world really be so slow to understand? They see the slightest hint of reform and they talk of North Korea opening up. But industries such as tourism are businesses controlled by the elite, whose interests are served by sustaining the status quo. If there was any hint of real change, anything that truly contradicted the narrative that ‘[North Korea] is the victim, [North Korea] is the legitimate system, the West is the enemy,’ then the whole thing would collapse.”

A North Korean soldier waves to a Chinese tourist boat near Sinuiju in May 2014. Increased tourism has been seen by some as a sign that North Korea may be opening up.
A North Korean soldier waves to a Chinese tourist boat near Sinuiju in May 2014. Increased tourism has been seen by some as a sign North Korea may be opening up. Photograph: Jacky Chen/Reuters

Jang says the international community has for too long based its approach to North Korea – whether it be engage or isolate – on its own perceptions of the nation’s beliefs and motives. He insists North Korea does want to engage with the world, but says the west’s attempts to use “its own logic” to understand the regime’s moves has led it to “misread” the signals. “This is a nation that cannot control the price of an egg. How can it possibly be a real threat?” he asks.

He also says new efforts must be made to understand the North Korean regime and the North Korean people, as separate entities.

Kim Jong-un must actually listen to his advisers, instead of control them as Kim Jong-il did

For Jang, there is no better moment for this to happen than now, as Kim Jong-un continues to attempt to consolidate power following the death of his father, and the execution of his uncle.

“Kim Jong-il got to where he was because he built a network of power around himself – an old boy’s club known as the OGD [Organisation and Guidance Department]. But Kim Jong-un doesn’t have an old boys network in North Korea. If he has one at all, it is abroad in Switzerland [where he was educated]. He must actually listen to his advisers, instead of control them as Kim Jong-il did.”

Jang sees this as a crucial chink in the young leader’s armour. He says he believes serious changes will come in the next five years, though he refuses to elaborate on what shape these changes may take.

“For now, the more we understand North Korea, the weaker the system becomes,” he says. “That is the only way to bring change.”

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, PW

A North Korean defector finds fleeing the Kim dictatorship as nightmarish as living under it in this harrowing memoir. Jang, now a journalist in South Korea, worked in the North Korean government’s United Front Department for espionage and psy-war penning propaganda; he won fame, riches (“individual rations on a weekly basis, instead of household rations”), and a Kafkaesque audience with Kim Jong-Il for a fulsome poem praising the Dear Leader (“Lord of the Gun/ Lord of Justice/ Lord of Peace/ Lord of Unification”). Jang’s rare high-level insider’s perspective on the North Korean system is especially eye-opening; drawing from secret archives, he relates how devious bureaucrat Kim Jong-il usurped the power of his father Kim Il-sung, but he hits hardest in scenes juxtaposing the frenzied glorification of the Kim cult with the starvation and brutalization he witnessed among ordinary people. Much of the book is a thriller-like narrative of Jang’s 2004 escape into the netherworld of illegal North Korean refugees in China, where he drifts, penniless and hunted by the police, through the glittering wealth and hard-edged anomie of modern Chinese cities, dependent on the kindness of random strangers. Jang’s almost impossibly dramatic story is one of the best depictions yet of North Korea’s nightmare. (May)