Category Archive: Jang Jin-Sung

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, The 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”.

Breaking News

Peony has sold US rights for Jang Jin Sung’s memoir, Crossing the Border. The book will be translated by Shirley Lee. After a fiercely contended bidding war amongst US publishers at auction, the highest bidder, with a good six figure number, was Simon & Schuster US. Simon & Schuster will be publishing early spring next year. More news to come.

The Market Shall Set North Korea Free by Jang Jin-Sung, New York Times, Op-ed


The Market Shall Set North Korea Free

Sung Choi
Published: April 26, 2013


Related News

I DEFECTED from North Korea in 2004. I decided to risk my life to leave my home country — where I worked as a psychological warfare officer for the government — when it finally sunk in that there are two North Koreas: one real and the other a fiction created by the regime.

Although in my job I had access to foreign media, books with passages containing criticism of our Dear Leader 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 all of our lives how 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?

It was after my harrowing defection — in which I bribed my way to a border crossing and escaped by running across a frozen river to China — that I recognized 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” — learned 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 United States 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 dialogue through its so-called Sunshine Policy, we saw it as an opening not for diplomatic progress but for extracting as much aid as possible. We also successfully bought time for our nuclear program through the endless marathon of the six-party talks.

Despite Pyongyang’s deceptive ways, many people in the outside world continue to believe in the theoretical North Korea in which 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 North’s 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 a tool for extracting aid. High-level diplomacy is no strategy for getting the regime to make economic reforms. The key to change lies outside the sway of the regime — in the flourishing underground economy.

All North Koreans depended for their very survival on a state rationing system until it collapsed in the mid-1990s. Its demise 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 barter household 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 that began to pop up.

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 U.S. greenback is the currency of choice.

Trading with their U.S. dollars (many of which are counterfeit) for Chinese products, North Koreans have come to recognize the existence of leaders greater even than the Kims. Who are these men gracing U.S. bank notes? 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 recognize the power of the flourishing marketplace to slowly but definitively transform North Korea from the bottom up. This empowerment of the North Korean people is crucial not only for a positive transformation of the nation, 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.

Jang Jin-sung, a former North Korean state official and poet laureate, is editor in chief of New Focus International, a Web site on North Korean affairs. This article was translated from the Korean by Shirley Lee.


Peony Literary Agency is delighted to announce a publishing contract for Jang Jin-sung and Shirley Lee for Crossing the Border


Jang photo

Random House imprint Rider is delighted to announce the acquisition of CROSSING THE BORDER by Jang Jin-Sung.  Jang Jin-Sung is former State Poet Laureate in North Korea. He was forced to flee to South Korea when a censored document in his possession went missing. Shirley Lee will be working on the adaptation.

Crossing the Border  is an extraordinary glimpse into life in North Korea. It details meetings with Kim Jong II and reveals the extreme poverty of ordinary North Koreans living under one of the harshest dictatorships in modern times.  Jang Jin-Sung’s account of his break for freedom is riveting and reads like a thriller, full of suspense.

Rider Publishing Director Judith Kendra, in a pre-emptive deal, bought World rights exc USA, Canada, Korea and Japan, from Marysia Juszczakiewicz of the Peony Literary Agency.

Kendra said ‘It is so rare to read a first-person account from North Korea. To publish one so gripping and courageous is a priviledge’

Jang Jin-Sung said ‘To have come all this way from the totalitarian state is such a blessing. I will give this book everything I have’

Rider will publish in Spring 2014.


Peony Literary Agency is a one of the most prolific multi-lingual literary agencies based in Asia. A small but ambitious and client centred business, it represents a number of Asia’s leading and new authors who explore both contemporary and historical Asia It has sold rights into over 20 countries worldwide for its clients during the last two years

Different perspectives … compelling new voices…. Peony brings the authentic and compelling literature of  Asia to publishers worldwide.

For further details please contact Marysia Juszczakiewicz at Peony Literary Agency:

How does North Korea make its money?


By Susannah Cullinane


(CNN) — There’s a reason that the historical nickname of the “Hermit Kingdom” for the old unified Korea is now applied to the closed North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Click here to read more »

North Korea’s peasant army gets ready to farm, not wage war

The Daily Guardian


SEOUL – As a North Korean army signaler near the tense sea border with the South, Lee So-yeon was given live ammunition and a steel helmet during a 1993 crisis, but soon found herself back doing what she and her comrades did most – farming.

It’s a vital service in a country where millions cannot find enough to eat. Click here to read more »