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)

 

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