Book Review: Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

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.

dear leaderIt 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

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Weekend Edition: 8-2

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • The great forgetting (“And here is one uplifting aspect of ageing: our stories of self get better.”)
  • How Did Bob Dylan Get So Weird? (“On a good night he makes some of his best-known songs unrecognizable, and on a bad one you come out wondering what it was, exactly, you’ve just seen.”)

Blog Headline of the Week

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from

Bob Dylan, “Not Dark Yet,” Time Out of Mind

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Not to say I told you so, but…

Following the Hobby Lobby decision, I wrote that one of the more problematic issues I saw was that the decision was framed in terms of the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of the company’s owners.  My concern was this could result in judging a person’s beliefs.  The Satanic Temple is stepping through that door.

It is specifically invoking Hobby Lobby for exemptions from state-mandated “informational” materials used as a part of informed consent.  It says it believes “the body is inviolable – subject to one’s own will alone” and the belief “is fundamental to our religious philosophy.”  It reasons that requiring women to receive “biased or false” information that is based on politics and not science is an “affront” to that belief.

An example of what the Temple is aiming at is seen in South Dakota law.  Informed consent requires a doctor give the patient a written statement that says, among other things, that an abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being” and that she has “an existing relationship with that unborn human being” that is protected by the U.S. Constitution and staste law.  The woman is required to to sign each page of the document and certify that she understands its contents.

Rather than filing some sort of lawsit, The Satanic Temple is providing a sample letter for “[a]ll women who share our deeply held belief.” The letter tells the doctor that giving her “Political Information … imposes an unwanted and substantial burden on my religious beliefs.” Some may scoff but isn’t whether this is a “sincerely held religious belief” in the eye of the beholder?  More imnportant, who has the right to determine whether it is a religious belief or sincerely held?

Unfortunately, the potential legitimacy of this approach is undercut by who is behind it.  People will view this either as a publicity stunt or crackpots attacking religion and the religious.  Yet the shock value doesn’t change the fact that Hobby Lobby has greater ramifications than corporate religious rights.


I do not regard Political Information to be scientifically true or accurate or even relevant to my medical decisions.

The Satanic Temple, “Political Information Opt-Out

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Weekend Edition: 7-26

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • How The Public Library Turned Me Into A Reader (“The books that visited me from the public library were mostly ephemeral events in my life; they came, were devoured, were discarded and were ultimately forgotten. Their effects, however, still linger.”)

Most Cringeworthy Lawsuit of the Week

  • An Alabama man has filed a medical malpractice suit alleging he checked into a hospital for a circumcision and awoke from surgery to find his penis had been amputated

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.

Sam Keen

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Book Review: Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

Hamilton and Burr. Sounds like a law firm you might see advertised on television. And they were lawyers. But that’s not what really ties these two men together. They are Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. For history buffs, the names may bring to mind the ongoing political battles in the 1790s between Hamilton, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and Burr, a U.S. Senator who defeated Hamilton’s father-in-law to gain the seat. Most Americans, though, remember the two from an event more commonly mentioned in American history classes — in 1804 Burr, then vice president of the U.S., killed Hamilton in a duel over derogatory comments Hamilton supposedly made.

Their enmity is one of the hooks for Duel with the Devil, an account of what was 18th Century New York City’s “Trial of the Century.” Paul Collins draws on numerous resources, including the trial transcript, in describing how two such foes both end up defending Levi Weeks, a young carpenter, in his trial for murdering Elma Sands, a young woman who lived in the same boarding house.

duelAlthough it is the pivot, the trial doesn’t actually begin until more than halfway through the book. In fact, the oddity of Burr and Hamilton being allied is, like the trial, a vehicle to explore the social and political landscape of New York City as the 18th Century drew to a close. Largest in the country with a population of 60,000, it’s a city where the streets are muddy, two miles of meadows and pastures separate it from Greenwich Village and getting potable water is a central concern. In fact, a project to install underground wooden pipes to bring in water is equally crucial. That project was the Manhattan Company’s, whose founding directors included Burr and Henry Brockholst Livingston, who would be on the U.S. Supreme Court less than seven years later. And the prelude to and trial itself give insight to the public attitudes and criminal justice system of the day.

When 22-year-old Gulielma “Elma” Sands’ body is found in a well outside the city on January 2, 1800, (in what is now SoHo in Lower Manhattan), suspicion immediately turns to Levi Weeks. Weeks, 24, lived in the boarding house owned and run by Elma’s cousin and reportedly was the last to be seen with her when she disappeared on December 22. Rumors were they were sneaking off to be secretly married. Between his arrest and trial at the end of March, virtually the entire city is convinced of his guilt. In fact, the day trial begins at City Hall, the building is swarmed by what one observer reported to be the largest crowd in the city’s history. And when it starts, Weeks is represented by Burr, Hamilton and Livingston. How does a common carpenter end up with such a high powered defense team? His brother, Ezra, is one of the city’s biggest contractors and not only does his wealth help, but both Burr and Hamilton are reportedly deeply in debt to him for various construction work.

Duel With The Devil unfolds slowly and even has a whodunit feel through the end of trial. The modern reader sees not only an early New York City but how legal procedures have changed over the years. While a judge was the chief presiding officer, he was joined by the city’s mayor and recorder. Jurors had to be men and possess $250 worth of property, about what a common laborer would earn in a year. Even murder trials usually took less than a day so, as a rule, they proceeded until complete. Here, though, the first day’s testimony went until 1:30 the next morning, with the jurors sleeping on the floor of a second story room in which they were sequestered. The second day went until 2:30 a.m. Seventy-five witnesses testified. The prosecution’s case was circumstantial; the defense decimated what we would today call the prosecution’s forensic evidence and suggested she committed suicide. Once the jury retired to deliberate at about 3 a.m., the not guilty verdict took minutes, perhaps aided by the fact the judge instructed the jury that he, the mayor and the recorder all believed the evidence was insufficient to convict Levi.

Levi didn’t testify during trial. That was a matter of custom in capital cases, where defendants were viewed as having a hopeless bias against conviction, creating a “disqualification of interest.” As Collins observes, though, that seems to have been about the only conflict of interest that was recognized. Not only did the city recorder sit on the board of the Manhattan Company at the time of trial, the company “owned the murder scene, had employed the defendant, had rejected a bid by a relative of the deceased, and had financial relationships with the court recorder and the clerk [of courts.]”

New York City was so fascinated with the trial that within hours of the verdict a 16-page pamphlet about it was being snapped up. Another, more complete pamphlet appeared two days after that and within two weeks the clerk of courts published the full transcript, the first such in the new nation. Collins incorporates that testimony in portraying the evidence and machinations at trial. His detail tends to be better focused than in earlier chapters, where there are occaionsal diversions into matters that don’t seem quite germane to the story or the portrayal of New York City in 1800. That said, the straightforward, almost journalistic approach, makes this a satisfying look into a unique coalescence of events and personalities.

Collins doesn’t abandon the participants once the trial is over. While it didn’t establish who killed Elma, Duel With The Devil does. Livingston, Hamilton and Burr would go on to joust in the courtroom and, for the latter two, in politics. Hamilton would meet his fate along the Hudson River in New Jersey. The duel would bring Burr’s political career to an end and he would stand trial for (and be acquitted of) treason in 1807, less than nine months after Livingston reached the Supreme Court. As for Levi Weeks? He would leave New York City several years later and go on to become a successful architect in Natchez, Miss., perhaps thankful he never achieved the fame (or infamy) of his legal “dream team.”


The jury box was what women and the poor faced, not what they sat in.

Paul Collins, Duel with the Devil

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Weekend Edition: 7-19

Bulletin Board

  • Although I doubt he or she is reading this, I just wanted to tell the asshat in Provo, Utah, who tries to hack the site several times a day that using different IP addresses ain’t gonna help. There’s also a dickwad in KC who’s not quite so pesistent.

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes

  • Easeful death (“Death is a fearful thing, but it is the pain of life that leaves many ill people in despair.”)
  • Because War is a Form of Language (“[Israel and Hamas] are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they’re communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.”)

Arrest of the Week

  • A Connecticut man was arrested after stabbing a watermelon with a butcher knife and leaving it in the kitchen for his wife to see

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage


I turned myself to face me
But I’ve never caught a glimpse

David Bowie, “Changes,” Changesbowie

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