Significant cultural and, yes, racial differences gave rise to America stereotyping Asians as mysterious or inscrutable. While that shibboleth has justifiably faded over the years, we still occasionally find aspects of Asia enigmatic. But when it comes to North Korea “WTF?!” seems regularly justified. And although Jang Jin-Sung’s memoir of his life and escape from North Korea provides some insight into the country and the Kim dynasty that has led it, the country still remains unfathomable.
Jang was a cultural counterintelligence agent and one of Kim Jong-il’s favorite propaganda poets. Having met and (with half a dozen other “cadres”) dined with Kim, he became one of North Korea’s “Admitted.” In Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee–A Look Inside North Korea, Jang tells how he got there and how and why, despite his high status, he escaped the country. Beginning with his prologue detailing his at times bizarre meeting the country’s Dear Leader, the book gives a first hand look at the absurdity and anguish in North Korea.
It isn’t entirely accurate to describe North Korea as totalitarian, an autocracy or a dictatorship. The country is beyond that, more akin to a feudal estate governed by sycophants devoted to serving the desires and caprice of the Great Leader. That aim is why Jang was a cultural counterintelligence agent. The propaganda unit in which Jang worked was devoted to conducting “psychological warfare” by using the arts to attempt to foster pro-North tendencies among South Koreans. His poetry was written under a pseudonym and was designed to appear that a South Korean poet who supported Kim was the author.
The control of the arts reveals both the power and impotence of North Korean government. Writers are assigned to create works specifically requested by the Workers’ Party, which runs the country (and, of course, which the the Dear Leader controls). To compose anything not authorized is, by definition, treason. A writer’s task is to create something that articulates the party’s intent based on pre-determined “aesthetic requirements” which, in turn, are based on the concept that people and Korea as a whole can triumph only through the guidance of the ruling Kim.
Jang achieved his elite rank through poetry. He came to Kim’s attention through a poem designed to promote the idea that North Korea’s policy giving the military primacy in society and government is intended to protect South Korea and that Kim is the true leader of all Koreans. Called “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord,” Kim was so taken with the poem that he ordered it published nationwide in the party newspaper. But poetry didn’t become a prime vehicle of propaganda entirely by design. It moved to the nation’s literary forefront in part because a paper shortage. Lacking sufficient paper to even print enough textbooks meant “the necessary tenets of loyalty to the Kim dynasty” had to appear in shorter form.
Between living in Pyongyang and his status, Jang was rarely affected by the economic dislocations caused by government policies and international ostracism. While power in the capital city was limited, Jang and his fellows received pounds of extra weekly rations. These came from humanitarian aid provided by the U.N., NGOs and religious organizations. Those further up in the hierarchy received rations daily or every three days. Ordinary North Koreans, though, received no scheduled rations. Thus, Jang saw an entirely different North Korea when he returned to his hometown for a visit. In his roughly 24 hours there, he saw swarms of homeless and starving people, a government detail which gathered corpses from the streets and a five-minute “People’s Trial” and execution of a man in the central marketplace for stealing a bag of rice.
Jang was also in a unique position. Given the work he did, the department in which he worked had access to newspapers, books and other materials forbidden to even most party members. Yet what he saw and read only indirectly led him to leave the country. When a friend loses a South Korean book Jang removed from his workplace, an investigation and prosecution was certain to follow. The two of them escape into China and, once there, attempt to make their way into South Korea. Those at times harrowing trials and tribulations make up much of Dear Leader but Jang also uses them as vehicles to discuss other aspects of North Korean history and politics.
Jang has a tendency to carry the story by recounting conversations and discussions that are clearly recreated. And while Jang tells his personal story chronologically, that isn’t the case for detailing North Korea under the Kim dynasty. Admittedly, Jang is a poet and not a politician, these matters tend to be addressed when he feels them somehow germane to the events being recounted. For the reader, though, it becomes difficult to trace government policy sequentially. Yet one thing is crystal clear. The Kim family and maintaining its control are essentially all that the government exists for. With a half century or more of propaganda devoted to heroic portrays of the the Great Leader and predecessors, North Korea is a state where a government office is devoted to Kim personal wealth, anyone relaying Kim’s words must stand at attention when doing so, there are dozens of train stations around the country reserved exclusively for Kim’s use and the language has two registers of speech, one relating only to the Dear Leader.
Dear Leader predates Kim Jong-Un becoming North Korea’s Supreme Leader. Yet there is nothing in it that gives reason to believe things will change or the life of the people improve. Perhaps one of the chief ingredients of the country’s status and actions is that it is, as Jang calls it, a “dictatorship of the mind.” Yet it’s likely that dictatorship and its effects are something we always will find incomprehensible.
North Korea’s opacity is its greatest strength.
Jang Jin-Sung, Dear Leader