Category Archive: Shirley Lee

Peony Authors appearing at the Hong Kong Literary Festival and Singapore Writers Festival, kicking off this weekend!

Hong Kong Literary Festival

Chan Koonchung



Singapore Writers Festival

Jang Jin Sung, Shirley Lee, Duncan Jepson and Su Tong

Jin Jang-sung

Jang Jin-sung

Shirley Lee

Shirley Lee

Duncan Jepson

Duncan Jepson

Su Tong

Su Tong

Jonathan Kay: A shocking exposé of the power behind North Korea’s Kim dictatorship, written by a real life Winston Smith



The great dystopian science fiction novels of the 20th Century were written from the perspective of elite totalitarian functionaries who become hunted victims of the regimes they once loyally served: Rubashov, the ageing Marxist of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Bernard, the disillusioned Alpha Plus of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, D-503, the chief engineer of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. In all cases, the real core of the book unfolds within the protagonists’ liberated minds, as they unwind the hideous perversions of intellect that are required to sustain totalitarian mythologies.


read more

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

A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004.
A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Marcus Noland: an ethical conundrum

For nearly three decades a chronic food emergency has gripped North Korea. In the 1990s a famine killed up to five per cent of the pre-crisis population.

Humanitarian activities by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and private relief groups constitute the longest ongoing engagement between the hermit state and the international community. But the North Korean regime’s actions create an ethical conundrum which may be reaching its breaking point.

The long-running food crisis is the outcome of decades of economic mismanagement and a political system that absolves its leadership of any real accountability.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency, instead of exporting industrial products, earning foreign exchange, and importing bulk grains, as its neighbours China, South Korea, and Japan do. The result has been environmental degradation and recurrent shortages.

The most recent Unicef survey suggests that 10% of the country’s two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting. Stunting of that degree at that age is irrecoverable and confers a lifetime of physical and mental challenges.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid, impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organisations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports – in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, in the order of $100-$200m, or about five to 20% of revenues from exported goods and services, or one to two per cent of contemporaneous national income.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does

Today, the gap could be closed for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget.

Donor fatigue has set in. The WFP’s assistance requests are grossly undersubscribed and the organisation may be forced to shut down its remaining programme. And if it tries to soldier on with reduced resources, its ability to monitor its own activities will be badly affected, risking aid diversion and catastrophic scandal.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does. We should provide assistance. But we should be clear-eyed about the terms of that engagement and seek to provide aid in ways consistent with our values and our obligations under international law.

Marcus Noland is director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He blogs for North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North Korean children in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children in Pyongyang. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

Jang Jin-sung: stop funding food aid

North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid. We say this not out of spite with regard to a nation whose leadership invests in luxuries, nuclear tests and missile launches while the welfare of its subjects remains low among its priorities. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons, because the assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it.

Today, the fatal threat for the regime lies not in the outside world, but within the country itself. More specifically, this is the jangmadang – an underground economy arisen from the ashes of economic collapse in the 1990s, and which consist of market activities taking place beyond the remit of the regime’s control mechanisms.

The assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it

The regime depends on its subjects putting loyalty and obedience to the Kim dynasty above all other values. But the jangmadang has awoken among ordinary people values that are detrimental to this: the worth of individual work, of independent choices, of outside information.

This fundamental transformation from below, the notion that lives may be lived outside the domain of loyalty to the system, is the greatest imminent threat to the regime’s power – which is held in place by inculcating the cult of the Kim dynasty, surveillance controls and the coercive mobilisation of its subjects in the name of the ruling Kim’s legitimacy.

The regime lost the ability to bind people’s economic loyalty to the system with the collapse of the Public Distribution System and its failure to subsequently implement currency reforms. It allocated rights and privileges for engaging in market activities to companies held under Korean Workers’ Party or military auspices to try to prevent the erosion of its economic monopolies and to concentrate economic power in the hands of its stakeholders.

But this did nothing to tackle the fundamental structural obstacles to reform: for current stakeholders to remain powerful, funds must continue to be redirected to spending on the maintenance of control mechanisms, the propaganda machine of the Kim dynasty cult, and military threat-making diversion projects.

Even at times when the regime is calling for food aid, it does not mean that the jangmadang will not have food on offer, whether stolen from state cooperatives or smuggled in from China. When up to three million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s it was not just about there not being any food – it was about access. It was a tragedy suffered by those trapped in a totalitarian and dictatorial system with no jangmadang to turn to.

In today’s North Korea there are two rival forces in battle: the forces of the regime and the forces of the market. The former’s interests are better served by the maintenance of existing party, military and surveillance mechanisms of control. The latter are equivalent to North Korea’s progressives, who believe in a future that is possible beyond the absolute, stifling and structurally inhumane confines of the regime.

An international community wishing to assist the North Korean people should recognise that funding food aid is a channel of limited efficiency. The majority of North Koreans depend not on the regime’s munificence but on market forces – they have already found this a more successful alternative, despite a disproportionate lack of international support or awareness.

Jang Jin-sung was one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite state poets until he defected in 2004. He founded the North Korea news website New Focus International

Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory
Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory. Photograph: KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Roberta Cohen: hungry people should not be penalised

Not surprisingly, the World Food Programme’s $200m plan for reaching malnourished women and children in North Korea through 2015 may be in danger of shutting down.

Donor fatigue and disillusionment have reached a tipping point, largely based on North Korea’s spending hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars on missile tests and launches, nuclear weapons and the development of intercontinental ballistic carriers.

Yet the donors – even those the inter-continental ballistic missiles are intended to target – are, like idiotas utiles, expected to pick up the tab for the food needs of the seven to eight million North Koreans (more than a third of the population) suffering from chronic malnutrition.

That the aid will reinforce the regime by enabling it to purchase military and luxury goods is hard to counter. Kim Jong-un’s lavish spending on ski resorts and water parks for Pyongyang’s elite has reportedly cost tens, even hundreds, of millions. To attract donors, North Korea will need to devote more of its own resources to agricultural reforms, incentives for food production, ending market restrictions, importing greater quantities of food and improving its deteriorating health structures.

Even so, some donors might not be eager to help a country that regularly hurls distasteful epithets and threatens its neighbours and beyond. In 2012, the United States cancelled a shipment of some 250,000 metric tons of food after Pyongyang reneged on an agreement by launching a long-range rocket.

The most critical question, however, is whether hungry people should be penalised for the policies of their government. The answer is no. The stunting of children (one out of four under the age of five), high maternal mortality rates and tuberculosis for lack of vitamins and iron should be de-linked from political issues.

But here the case of North Korea presents a dilemma: reaching the needy has often been thwarted by a lack of access and transparency. While donors, UN agencies and ngos have devised increasingly stringent monitoring conditions, including measuring children’s arms and providing corn soy blends so as not to be diverted to the military or elite, a widely disseminated United Nations report this year found that the government distributes food primarily to persons crucial to the regime, favours certain parts of the country, and avoids structural reforms of agriculture and health care out of fear of losing political control.

It therefore behooves the UN to press North Korea for strengthened monitoring and to link its aid to long term reforms designed to achieve sustainable results. And the UN must broaden its focus beyond traditional donors to China. As North Korea’s principal ally, recent estrangement notwithstanding, China should be urged to join in meeting shortfalls and in adopting international monitoring standards.

Roberta Cohen is non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children dressed in their best outfits at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang. Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AP

James Hoare: many countries get their priorities wrong

When I was working in North Korea in 2001-2002, the WFP programme was one of the largest in the world. At that time, in the wake of the 1994 famine, WFP received plentiful supplies both in the form of food – sacks of US-donated corn could be seen at the ports, for example – and funding.

It was never enough, however, and WFP always had to prioritise. Pregnant mothers, children and the old were the targets. There were other benefits as well. It gave many North Korean officials the valuable experience of working with an international organisation, useful exposure for those who had little experience of the outside world.

WFP has always had to fight off those who are opposed to giving any food to North Korea. Various reasons have been put forward for not supplying aid, including the charges that food was being diverted or that funds spent on the military should be spent on feeding the population. There be truth in such charges but the targeted groups still needed the assistance and WFP staff worked hard to make sure that they got it.

Circumstances have changed since those days. There is donor fatigue; food aid to North Korea has been going on a long time. Other countries have equal or greater needs. While North Korea no longer faces the dire conditions of the 1990s, the state’s priorities appear not to include feeding the most vulnerable. Spending on the military, including missiles and nuclear weapons takes precedence – as does improving life for the elite. Some see in the WFP a bureaucracy that does not want to change. So the voices are again raised about ending food aid.

But the vulnerable remain. We know from nutritional surveys that lack of good food in early years means that many will be permanently affected. We also know that many countries get their priorities wrong; children go hungry even in the richest nations. To penalise those who are already suffering and who can do nothing to influence the government would be unjust. The WFP should be helped to continue its North Korean programme.

Dr J E Hoare was Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea from 2001-2002

North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city, North Korea.
North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Steven Weber: time to change tack

The single most important decision any country makes is how to divide its resources between guns, butter and investment. To put this another way, societies choose between spending to defend what they have, increasing current consumption, and building for the future.

For decades now, the world has been subsidising North Korea’s choice to invest massively in defence at the expense of both investment and current consumption. Three regimes in Pyongyang have been given a partial free ride. What’s surprising is not that donors are fatigued; it’s that the fatigue has taken this long to set in.

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation?

Subsidies can always be justified in some fashion. For decades after the second world war the US subsidised the defence expenditures of many of its European allies so that they could spend more on consumption and investment. It was controversial at times, and still is since it continues to this day. But the results spoke for themselves in the post-war European economic and social recovery.

But what good has come of subsidising North Korea’s food consumption? It’s hard to point to a single positive result. Pyongyang has done nothing but pocket the concessions and spend the greatest proportion of what resources it does have on military power to provoke its southern neighbour and the rest of the world. Including, of course, with a nuclear weapons programme that threatens to destabilise north-east Asia further, when it has a host of other problems to solve.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation? North Koreans are starving regardless and will continue to do so, because the world simply is not at present going to provide enough food to meet the nutritional needs of the population.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one and it’s not likely to be reversed unless the North Korean regime delivers something positive on security. And that’s less likely to happen if we keep the regime on slowly diminishing life support.

To gradually starve the country through donor fatigue is not an intentional strategy to bring about political change that could actually benefit the people of North Korea; it’s just a lazy default. There are better choices at both ends of the spectrum. One would be to cut off aid entirely and force Pyongyang’s hand. The other would be to massively increase food aid so that the population actually receives sufficient calories to thrive.

Both strategies have obvious risks. Cut off aid and North Korea could strike out as a last ditch effort to force our hand in return. But Pyongyang might also be forced to spend more resources growing and buying food. Double down on aid and North Korea might take advantage and happily divert yet more of its resources into the military. But it might also take the signal of peaceful intentions as an opportunity to go further in its ever-so-slight opening to the world. In each case, the job of foreign policy leaders in the rest of the world is to find ways — and there are ways — to tilt the table toward the more desirable outcome.

Some will object to the idea of using food as a weapon. But let’s be blunt: food is already a weapon. The North Koreans have been using it against us for decades, and we have responded with gradual fatigue that serves no long term goal. Better to turn the tables and take the initiative to bring about change, and give the human beings that have had the unfortunate luck to be born under Pyongyang’s rule a chance at a better future.

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.

Reclaiming Korean Literature

By Shirley Lee

Engaging with ancient literature has its difficulties. Even if we put aside the unfamiliar details of cultural context, there remain factors such as genre, function, and form that can be daunting for the modern reader. The didactic genre is currently out of fashion (Vergil’s bee-keeping manual in poetic form is not a modern favorite); earnest patriotism expressed through poetry is difficult to take at face value today (Wilfred Owen imbued “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” with an irony not present in Horace’s original); and the epic poem as the preferred literary long-form has long been superseded by the novel.

These factors are perhaps felt more acutely when the ancient literature in question is read in translation, as expectations shift closer to the cultural and literary context of the target language, and away from that of the source.

Although contemporary literature from within North Korea is not ancient, an outside reader attempting to engage with it may be confronted by a similar feeling of alienation to that described above. Not only is the language of North Korean literature enmeshed in its distinctive and poorly understood sociopolitical context, but it is severely constrained to serve a narrow political purpose, grinding unpleasantly with our outsiders’ sense of the role we think literature should play.

We generally expect writers to write in defiance of establishment politics, as suggested by the controversy arising from Nobel laureate Mo Yan’s apparent endorsement of Chinese state censorship. And perhaps Bob Dylan’s lyrics are all the more valued by mainstream opinion because they offered an alternative voice to establishment politics.

DPRK state literature may try to appeal to the outside reader in superficial terms of form: the psychological warfare division employs writers whose attempts at “catchy” lyrics are published on YouTube. Yet in terms of function and purpose, the words are fundamentally interpreted as serving establishment politics.

In trying to understand why the work of North Korean exiles is so accessible and relatively easy to translate with a foreign reader in mind, one answer suggesting itself is this: the key is in the familiarity of function, rather than of form. As North Korean exiles write in defiance of establishment politics, they perhaps write according to the values of literary purpose we are most comfortable with.

The literature of North Korean exiles is written from a viewpoint we feel we can identify with, even if we have not experienced what they have; in this way, it provides a bridge of communication between North Koreans and the rest of the world to speak human-to-human—something almost impossible to accomplish when the language of the regime is the mediator between us and them.

Yet I feel familiarity of function does not wholly account for North Korean exile literature’s relatively docile nature when being rendered into English. The bare language and simplicity of the literary web of allusions in this literature plays a large part, too. Perhaps it is a symptom of severe cultural trauma.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, establishment politicians tried to erase their literary heritage, attempting to replace the vacuum with the Party’s vision of Chinese language and literature. Poets of China’s “New Generation,” still little-known in the West but legendary in China itself, rebelled by turning to the classical Chinese literary canon; and thereby reclaimed a Chinese language and literature that did not belong to the Chinese Communist Party.

Coming from a country where history has been set to begin on the dictator Kim Il Sung’s birth year, where allusions that contradict the official literary lexicon are considered blasphemous, where the politicians’ usurpation of the literary canon is more total than in any other nation on earth, North Korean exiles have an enormous task ahead of them once they leave the system: they must claim an alien heritage as their own, or start anew.

Stripped of language and literature, their voices are nakedly human. I am reminded faintly of fables and folk tales—they are a product of their time, but known and enjoyed and passed down stripped of context, and thus easily transferable through languages and cultures. At the same time, the literature of North Korean exiles is more than fables, because their simplicity is owed more to their context rather than to the nature of their  content. This is true also with modern Korean literature from before the war, which can be glimpsed in “Military Jacket Button” by poet Kim Chul.

For these reasons, the developing creation of a non-state North Korean literature—the work of North Korean exiles being the only such literature at present—will go hand in hand with the emergence of a new society: of North Koreans who represent an identity beyond what can possibly be owned by the ruling Party of the DPRK, with the writers reclaiming their language and literature from the politicians.

Published May 22, 2013   Copyright 2013 Shirley Lee

Read more:

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: