BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Poet, spy and fugitive from North Korea
, July 5, 2014
North Korea’s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths behind the Regime
by Jang Jin-sung
(London: Rider Books)
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Some of the stories in this book are quaint, and some are grotesque.
Among the former is the author’s description of how he was inspired to become a poet by reading The Collected Works Of Lord Byron in a restricted Korean translation.
The latter include his eye-witness accounts of a special unit in a public park collecting the bodies of beggars who had died of starvation overnight; of a kangaroo court trying and shooting an alleged rice thief in a market while shoppers look on; and a poverty-stricken mother out in the street offering her daughter for sale.
This is not the first book about a young, male escapee from North Korea which I have reviewed for News Weekly.
The hero of The Aquariums Of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (reviewed March 8, 2003) came from a comfortable middle-class family which was jailed en masse for the unguarded comments of a grandfather.
Escape From Camp 14 (reviewed July 7, 2012) dealt with a youth who had been born, and grew up, in a forced labour camp.
Jang Jin-sung, however, while not a political mover and shaker, was a member of the North Korean elite, an insider who saw the system’s workings at first hand, and possessed the special immunity of one of the “Admitted”, i.e., those who had actually met, and spoken with, dictator Kim Jong-il.
Beginning as a literary editor for North Korean television, Jang Jin-sung was later recruited by the United Front Department (UFD).
The UFD is a propaganda operation, which uses music, art and literature to extol North Korea to South Koreans, and to convince North Koreans that South Koreans admire and envy them.
Jang Jin-sung’s job was to pose as a South Korean poet who craved a united Korea ruled by the Kim dynasty.
It was one of his pieces adulating Kim Jong-il which led to his dinner and audience with the Dear Leader, and the consequent privileged status he thenceforth enjoyed.
The UFD’s employees have free access to foreign newspapers, magazines and books from South Korea, which are barred to the rest of the population; but they are strictly forbidden to remove them from the premises.
In the course of secret critical discussions of the Pyongyang regime, Jang Jin-sung lent his best friend a foreign book, which the friend lost on a train, and which quickly finished up in the hands of the secret police.
Had he been a lesser mortal, Jang Jin-sung would have been arrested immediately; but because he was one of the “Admitted”, the police had first to obtain special permission from higher authorities.
This gave him and his friend time to flee to the north, where they crossed the Tumen River border into China.
Jang Jin-sung was born in 1971, and escaped in 2004; but most of the book covers the 35 days he spent in China before reaching South Korea, with extended flashbacks to his life in North Korea along the way.
The adventures of the two young fugitives, during this month or so on the run, make for a rattling good yarn.
There is the dash across the frozen river; the confusion of strange cities and countryside; the terrified avoidance of soldiers, police and officials; going hungry and sleeping rough in freezing, filthy huts and streets.
They are bravely befriended by members of the Chinese and Korean/Chinese communities, but always aware that they could be betrayed and returned to certain imprisonment, torture and execution.
At least they were male; female escapees from North Korea in China are often kidnapped, and then sold into forced marriage or prostitution.
One of the saddest aspects of their flight was the hostile reception they received at the two churches where they applied for help. In each case, the congregation seemed terrified that being associated by the authorities with North Korean refugees would endanger its barely tolerated existence.
The saddest aspect of all was Jang Jin-sung’s friend’s suicide by jumping off a cliff, after he had been captured by Chinese officials and was being driven back to the border for repatriation.
Jang Jin-sung is understandably reticent about the details of his final exit to South Korea; but he is now happily employed and married in Seoul, though still under continuous surveillance by protective agents (a price often paid by opponents of murderous ideologies).
The blurb on the book-cover claims that Dear Leader “exposes shocking truths behind the regime”. Well, yes and no.
Certainly it provides an insider’s fascinating knowledge of the bizarre workings of the North Korean state, but there seems to be nothing absolutely new here.
We are reminded of North Korea’s totally insincere foreign policy (and its hatred of its large and indispensable “friend” China); of the mediaeval dynasticism of its Kim dictatorship, and the blatant privileges and feudal rigidities of its social hierarchy; of the shameless appropriation by the ruling classes of foreign-relief supplies; of mass family punishments for individuals’ “crimes”; and of the charade of religious liberty trotted out for gullible visitors from the West.
Here are two details which struck me in particular.
First, Jang Jin-sung is surprised to meet a woman from China’s Korean minority who refers to the man to whom she is engaged as her “fiancé”, because in North Korea men and women, whatever their relationship, refer to one another as “Comrade”.
He writes: “It was considered subversive to refer to your lover by any other address or title…. Unconditional love was reserved exclusively for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il…. If anyone were to place another human above them in any way, it would be reduced to second priority.”
Similarly, he was amazed to find that a Chinese farmer had lined his inside walls with newspapers featuring photographs of China’s political leaders, because such lèse majesté in North Korea would result in immediate arrest.
Secondly, he sees one of the most hopeful signs of subversion of the system in the burgeoning market economy, which the authorities recognise and dislike, but are afraid to abolish for fear of the social discontent which such heavy-handed action might catalyse.
This is an exciting, informative and, at times, deeply moving story.
Bill James is a Melbourne-based writer.