Category Archive: Peony Author Press

Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson, The South China Morning Post

In Emperors Once More, Hong Kong author Duncan Jepson has merged the city’s past and present to create a hypothetical future in which a murky underworld threatens to rise to the surface.

It’s a little surprising that thriller writers have not mined Hong Kong for more material in the past: in many ways, it’s the perfect backdrop for a high-octane mystery. There’s glitz and glamour, but also windy streets, dark corners and a history of organised crime.

Whether Jepson’s 2017 vision of Hong Kong – where a brutal murder never seems far away – is a dystopian nightmare or a worrying prediction is for debate.

[Duncan] has set up an intriguing backdrop in which China has bailed out a debt-ridden Europe, only for Europe to default on the loan

The recent brutal attack on former Ming Paoeditor Kevin Lau Chun-to might suggest the latter; it’s certainly the type of incident that wouldn’t look out of place in Emperors Once More.

As is traditional with modern-day thrillers, it’s not enough for a hero to tackle mere murderers. Any killing must be part of a global conspiracy, and Jepson does not disappoint. He has set up an intriguing backdrop in which China has bailed out a debt-ridden Europe, only for Europe to default on the loan. It’s a clever set-up because it taps into the genuine fears of the West over China’s rise during the previous decade.

But the focus here is on the bubbling discontent on the mainland, which evokes familiar Chinese themes such as the century of humiliation and the need for the country to reassert itself on the world stage. It’s not a million miles from what one might read on a nationalist blog, or the pages of state-run newspapers such as The Global Times.

When two priests are killed by a sniper in Hong Kong, and then a container full of dead bodies is discovered, it falls upon Senior Inspector Alex Soong to investigate. Kicking off with the priests’ murder is a clever touch from Jepson: it’s a subtle nod to the Boxer Rebellion, the violent anti-Christian and anti-Western movement in China at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, which was crushed by an alliance of Western powers.

Soong is an intriguing hero who is also well versed in his country’s history. Being the intuitive type, he soon suspects there may be more to the murders.

At times, Soong drifts dangerously close to the clichéd detective who must battle his own demons as well as the bad guys. But his background – an American-educated Hongkonger with mainland heritage – adds dimension to the character. Soong drives a Mustang and listens to Miles Davis; he also practises traditional martial arts. It may be a little crude, but it is an effective way of embodying the clash between East and West which lies at the centre of the book.

Fortunately, Soong is an earnest character who becomes genuinely likable as the book progresses, particularly when dealing with a distant wife who only appears interested in buying expensive furniture. By the time the book reaches a climax – at a G8 meeting in Hong Kong, at which Soong is convinced that something terrible will happen – it’s hard not to root for the police officer.

Jepson, a lawyer by day who has also worked as a writer, producer and director on films, certainly has an eye for the cinematic. The book is urgent and at times restless, much like its hero. Short chapters will keep the pages flicking, and the plot is thick enough to give the reader a working knowledge of modern Chinese history as they progress.

This is often done thrillingly, not least in a tense encounter between the detective and a mysterious villain, during which the villain seethes: “First opium, then religion, then political ideology, and now debt … must we consume every Western poison?”

It displays real confidence to take on such a voice, boiling down 200-odd years of resentment into one well-versed putdown. But Jepson has the verve to pull it off. It’s also a brave move to create baddies not too unlike the ultra-nationalists on the mainland. But he handles the characters with sensitivity, ensuring that the lines between good and evil are suitably blurred.

Emperors Once More is a dramatic change of pace from Jepson’s debut novel, All the Flowers in Shanghai, a sweeping story set in 1930s Shanghai which was well received when it was released in 2011. Jepson has also co-written a graphic novel, Darkness Outside the Night, with Xie Peng, which won praise from Nobel laureate Mo Yan.

But in turning to the thriller genre, Jepson focuses on Hong Kong, where he lives and works. He has been clever to name-check many of the city’s prominent streets and districts as Soong moves around trying to solve the case.

It may be an old trick, but anyone familiar with the city will nod in recognition. In one particularly evocative scene, he describes the Jockey Club in Happy Valley, which has fallen into a state of disrepair by 2017 as illegal gambling rings become more prevalent.

Jepson has also made sure to populate the city with a cast of minor characters which anyone who has lived here is bound to recognise. A particular favourite is Jenni Plum, a fashion blogger who manages to get Soong in trouble with both his boss and his wife.

Emperors Once More tackles some universal themes that should attract a following, even among those who have never visited our city. It is an ambitious and high-minded thriller that challenges the reader to consider the impact of the past on the West’s future relationship with China.

As for Alex Soong, he’ll be back on the case soon; Jepson is already working on a second instalment.

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.

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.