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.