Category Archive: Peony Author Press

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)

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, NBC

In the late 1990s, Jang Jin-sung was North Korea’s state poet laureate and a spy.

He reached the pinnacle of his charmed life in 1999 when he met the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, at the age of just 28.

Becoming one of Kim’s “Admitted” inner circle meant Jang was granted immunity from even the highest-ranking authorities and other privileges: a steady stream of food provisions (“spoils of war” as the North Koreans termed food aid packages from international aid agencies), special access to strictly censored publications, a travel pass within the country, even his own transport – a bicycle.

It all came to an end in 2004 when Jang was forced to flee his homeland.

Image: Jang Jin-sung SIMON & SCHUSTER

Jang Jin-sung was a member of Kim Jong Il’s inner circle. “The world today still thinks of North Korea as a military country,” he said. “But that is completely incorrect.”

“Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea” is Jang’s story of transformation and his escape; it’s being published this month by Simon & Schuster. While almost everything Jang recounts about how the North Korean government works is unverifiable, it’s a remarkable account.

Below is the translation of an interview he gave NBC News’ Director of International News Adrienne Mong during a recent visit to London.

Q: What was your job?

In North Korea, I was a writer. But in North Korea there’s no such thing as a writer the way the outside world understands it. It’s not as an individual that you are a writer. It is as a bureaucrat, as a civil servant, as a revolutionary.

I was a part of the so-called United Front Department [the key division in the ruling Workers’ Party that was also responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policymaking and diplomacy]. My job title was counterintelligence officer with special oversight of psychological warfare against South Korea.

Q: So your position gave you a unique perspective on how the North Korean government functions?

When I was growing up, I didn’t even think to question what we read and were taught. It was only when I became part of the system, writing over and over the story that I’d been taught as a child, that I realized it wasn’t the truth. I 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.


The late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il visits a coal mine in a photo released in 2009.

Q: How does the North Korean government work?

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.

“Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that old boys’ network … In North Korea, he’s alone. He has no alliances or factions or any clout”

All roads in North Korea lead to the OGD. If you go anywhere in North Korea, even at the lowest level — a village, town, district, or residential neighborhood — there is a party committee. This committee reports to the OGD. The OGD answered to one person, Kim Jong Il. The OGD has five functions. First, it is responsible for running the country and there are no competing channels. Second, it has the right to vet and appoint personnel who have any power to command. Third, it has the right to purge, execute, or monitor anyone; the secret police is directly run by the OGD. Fourth, any policy anyone wants to propose has to go through the OGD; there is no legislative body and Kim Jong Il signed off on every policy. Finally, the OGD is responsible for safeguarding the Kim family.

Q: Is this power structure sustainable?

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. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sustainable; they don’t know how to maintain power any other way.

Q: What if Kim Jong Un is a weak leader? How does the OGD work then?

It’s a structure that keeps it going no matter whether he has the power or not. That’s precisely why the OGD is so much more powerful now than before. When Kim Jong Il built up the OGD [to take power from his father Kim Il Sung], it was all Kim Jong Il’s friends, a network of his old friends. Kim Jong Un doesn’t have that old boys’ network. If he does, it’s in Switzerland. In North Korea, he’s alone. He has no alliances or factions or any clout, because he has no operational experience within the North Korean system the way his father had by the time he came to power.

Image: King Jong Un and Kim Jong Il in Oct. 2010VINCENT YU / AP, FILE

Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang,North Korea, on Oct. 10, 2010.

Q: If so, wouldn’t someone in the OGD just take over if they already wield the real power?

That’s an interesting question. North Korean people live in a society that has been engineered especially for a Kim to be in power. Only the Kim family is considered the legitimate heirs. 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.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding of North Korea today?

North Korea needs to be seen in its own specific context. People tend to view how it works within the Soviet system or as some relic of Stalin or the Cold War. It’s not. It’s more of a cult-totalitarian state, i.e., a totalitarian system with a cult-building foundation. We need to stop applying Cold War or Soviet logic to a country that has a totally different historical background.

“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”

Q: We tend to think that China is North Korea’s closest ally and has influence over North Korea. But when I was working in Beijing, that didn’t seem to be the view within the Chinese capital. How would you describe the relationship?

The Chinese have been so annoyed by North Korea and by Kim Jong Il personally … China wants reform and opening. It has expectations for Kim Jong Un. But it’s going to be more pragmatic in its approach in how to deal with Pyongyang. Because to the Chinese, it’s, “we don’t want to go through what happened with Kim Jong Il, he was a pain.” As for the North Korean leadership, it despises China. They believe, “The Chinese think they’re so great. They think they can determine Korea’s fate. We are not Chinese. We are Korean.” So these guys don’t want to be holding hands with Beijing. They are more interested in developing their nuclear weapons to keep their status quo going. The last thing they would want is Chinese-style reform.

Q: What is the North Korean view of America then?

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.

Q: What has been the biggest adjustment living in the outside world, in South Korea?

The most difficult thing was to realize that while I had left that world of North Korea, I could not settle in the new world of South Korea, because I had left all my family and friends north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). How could I live in a world empty of everyone I loved? The DMZ is a fence not just across land but also across the heart of every North Korean exile. We’re neither of this world or that world. If your heart is still in one place and you are in another, it’s hard to make a new life in a new place. So that was the most difficult decision I had to make: to accept that I am here, in South Korea, and begin anew.

Q: Describe to us your day-to-day now in South Korea. How do you go about life amidst possible threats from North Korea to stop you from talking?

My life is no different from that of normal people. I get up in the morning, go to work [at New Focus International, a website reporting on North Korea], come home for dinner with my family, etc. Of course, I have bodyguards and am always aware of the threat from North Korea …. I’m just so grateful to even be alive and to live another day. So I can’t waste it, because why did I escape, why did all of this happen so that I could have a happy life, if I don’t keep speaking the truth about North Korea?

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, New York Post

Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean poet laureate and a employee of the country’s United Front Department, the government agency responsible for “inter-Korean espionage, policy making and diplomacy,” was walking through Dongdaewon, the poorest area of Pyongyang. It was 1999, five years into the country’s harsh descent into famine and poverty.
As he entered a packed outdoor market, he was stopped by a gathering crowd. In the center stood an adult woman and a girl of about seven. A piece of paper hung from the girl’s neck. It read, “I sell my daughter for 100 won.”
At the time, 100 won equalled about 10 cents in US dollars.
Onlookers cursed the mother. The daughter cried to the crowd that her father had died of starvation. Finally, an army lieutenant — who, given his position, was still receiving food rations — agreed to take the girl, and paid the mother.
The mom broke down in violent sobs, screaming “Forgive me! Forgive me!” to the girl as she jammed pieces of bread in her mouth, the last thing she would ever be able to give her daughter.
“Looking at the mother and daughter in that place,” Jang writes, “I felt sure that we were living in the end days of the world.”
‘The Corpse Division’
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Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-sung
Jang’s new memoir, “Dear Leader,” is a remarkable story of struggle and survival, the tale of his desperate flight from North Korea in 2004.
Given Jang’s unusual position of privilege, the book also presents a rare look inside the lives of the North Korean people and its leaders.
The average North Korean citizen received monthly, pre-measured food rations from the state until 1994, when the collapsed economy left people to fend for themselves. (Those in high levels of government and the military still received rations.)
Death from starvation grew so common that it led to the founding of the ominously but accurately named Corpse Division.
Jang first saw them when, in a park, he noticed “a swarm of homeless people who looked to be either dead or dying. There were also men hovering over the bodies like flies, at times poking the inert figures with sticks.”
When he asked who they were, a friend replied, “They’re from the Corpse Division. They get rid of the corpses. All the other provinces [except Pyongyang] dispatch them to the main park near the station. All sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg, until they die.”
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Kim Il-sung , right, and Kim Jong-il in South Korea November, 1994.
Photo: Getty Images
Jang saw the division in action.
“The Corpse Division had a loaded rickshaw, on top of which some empty sacks were laid,” he writes. “Six bare and skeletal feet poked out from beneath these in oddly assorted directions. For the first split second, I did not understand what I was seeing, but as soon as I realized these empty sacks were human bodies, I grew nauseous.”
Water was scarce as well. The lower and middle classes “frequented the boiler rooms at foreign embassies, restaurants, or central state institutions. If you paid a bribe, the staff would allow you to have some of the hot water from the overflow pipe.”
Despite the desperation, woe to the North Korean who stole food.
As Jang spoke to his friend at their hometown marketplace, a siren went off. People around him began swearing. His friend “looked exasperated” and said, “F – – – ing hell.”
“There’s going to be a People’s Trial,” said a nearby vendor. “No one can leave the market until it’s over.”
These executions, Jang learned, took place weekly.
“Sure enough, soldiers rushed in from all directions to surround the square, herding us into the center with the butts of their rifles,” writes Jang. The prisoner, who had stolen a bag of rice, was brought in wearing everyday clothes, which Jang took as a message to the townspeople that “any of them could be in this position.”
The man, “eyes full of terror” and “blood around his lips,” was brought into the center as “a military officer read out his judgment,” and a judge declared, “Death by firing squad!”
After this less-than-five-minute “trial,” a soldier shoved “a V-shaped spring” into the man’s mouth to “prevent him from speaking intelligibly,” so that he “could not utter rebellious sentiments” just before he was shot dead in front of the day’s shoppers.
Meeting the dictator
Already a member of the UFD, Jang was declared one of the “Admitted” — a special status proclaiming one a Kim Jong-il insider, with privileges including immunity from investigation and prosecution (except for treason) — in 1999 after writing a poem called “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord.”
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Crowds bow to the statues of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jon Il, right, and his father, North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung. The statue sits on a hill in the capital Pyongyang.
Photo: Reuters
The 28-year-old was brought to meet the Dear Leader after being summoned by the Guards Command, the unit “responsible for the protection of Kim’s household. It comprises one hundred thousand infantry, seamen and pilots.”
When Jang first saw Dear Leader, he felt “let down,” as Kim was “an old man who looks nothing like the familiar image of the People’s Leader.”
The shock continued when he noticed that Kim had removed his shoes.
“Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet!” he writes. “I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught in school.”
“You, boy! Are you the one who wrote that poem about the gun barrel?” Kim said.
“Yes, General!” Jang yelled in his carefully prepared response. “I am honored to be in your presence!”
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A giant poster of the two former leaders hangs in Wonsan, North Korea.
Photo: Getty Images
“He smirks as he approaches me,” writes Jang.
“Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right?” Kim says. “Don’t even think about lying to me. I’ll have you killed.”
“As I begin to panic,” writes Jang, “the Dear Leader bursts into hearty laughter and punches me on the shoulder. ‘It’s a compliment, you silly fool. You’ve set the standard for the whole Songun era.’” (Songun is North Korea’s “military first” policy.)
Later, Kim pours Jang a glass of wine. This is a notable North Korean honor, and anyone fortunate enough to experience it then prominently displayed the wine glass on a mantel in their home.
Jang notes, though, that the “wine” Kim drinks is not wine as we know it, but rather an 80-proof liquor “developed by the Foundational Sciences Institute, the academic body devoted to the study of the Dear Leader’s health. Three thousand researchers work there, planning and preparing medicines and dishes specifically designed to extend Kim Jong-il’s longevity.”

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, BBC

Jang Jin-sung was the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s poet laureate and propagandist. He is now one of the most high profile figures to defect from the country and has written a book about his experience called Dear Leader, with the academic Shirley Lee – who acts as his translator.

“The day I met the leader the facade was torn, I realised there were two Kim Jong-ils in this world; one, a man that the party machinery had created and the other who was standing in front of me,” he tells the BBC’s Mishal Husain.