Book Review: A Look Inside a Secretive North Korea
Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee, by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, 37 Ink/Atria Books. Hardback, 339 pp. $27.99
Jang Jin-sung’s run to freedom started when he turned his face to the sunlight. Jang originally penned pro-North Korean propaganda in the Communist Party’s United Front Department (UFD) in Pyongyang to attempt influence public opinion in South Korea.
Jang’s position as poet and propagandist gave him access to South Korean publications no common citizen of the North would ever see. Therefore, he scrutinized its newspapers. His supervisor ensured that black lines redacted exposure of the North’s pitiless, avaricious dictator Kim Jong-il, who died of a heart attack in December 2011. A suspicious Jang, in a scene that might have come from a Le Carre novel, lifted the documents to the window to discover, through the illuminating light, the truth of North Korea’s murderous record.
Jang is today a well-known writer and editor in South Korea, where he publishes the Website New Focus International on North Korean affairs. Unlike most of North Korea’s elite, he took to his heels just ahead of being discovered as a possible traitor by security forces. He is also unique among ranking UFD officials because he recorded his experiences in the newly published Dear Leader, Poet, Spy, Escapee, A look inside North Korea, published by Atria Books.
The book is a valuable corollary to former Washington Post foreign correspondent Blaine Harden’s searing Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West, the story of how the north’s gulag turns humans into animals.
Jang’s book is told from the polar opposite of North Korean society, by a once-privileged poet and propagandist who could sup at Kim Jong-Il’s table. Overall, his book is both page-turner thriller and expose of Pyongyang’s machinations and greed – Byzantium with kimche.
At first, Jang won Kim’s praise when he wrote a hagiographic ode to Kim. He is no John Milton. His doggerel lyrics span: “Lord of the Gun/Lord of Justice/Ah, the true leader.” The drumbeat is an illustration of the widely accepted fact that communist ideology up there has decomposed into theology.
Kim’s ego-aggrandizing God-man meme recurred when Jang’s handiwork placed him among the “Admitted,” with a capital A that connotes not just favored comrades but disciples. Jang’s poem garnered him a banquet invitation with Kim. Small spotlights festooned the fish platter to make the scales glitter to amuse Kim, who ignored the guests and the spectacle to only coo to his dog. That validates a stadium’s worth of defectors’ accusations that Kim was not a Confucian patriarch but akin to a sybaritic, fire hydrant-shaped Marie Antoinette.
Kim was also apparently a serial statutory rapist. The author indicted the members of his Room Five for recruiting underage girls. When they were 24 years old, the castoffs were married to his bodyguards. So the grandee socialist had a kinky streak – Caligula with bouffant hair.
After Jang witnessed guards execute a farmer for stealing rice, the still loyal minion wrote: “Even when he is dead, [lets] kill him again!” evidence of irrational passion for expunging dissent.
The discrepant information agglomerated with macabre incidents to rankle Jang. When the soldiers killed the farmer, for instance, first they rammed a V- spring into his mouth to stifle anti – Kim curses. Also, Jang learned about a girl whose apple tree yielded food. But thieves struck, impelling her to hang herself by her thin neck from a now-stark branch. Her grandfather – as hungry for revenge as for a meal – vowed to eat the robbers and then went mad, a living metaphor for North Korea’s self- benighted national drama.
Ultimately, a disillusioned Jang crossed the Tumen River into China in 2004 ahead of police seeking to arrest him for passing some of the real information he obtained in his propaganda duties on to a friend. His anxiety was only a half-step behind his courage just as his shadow trailed his churning legs: the “roof of my skull seared with pain where I knew the bullet” would pierce. Like a beleaguered Moses, however, he reached China, a promised land serving spicy tofu as its milk and honey.
Wonks can parse Jang’s policy revelations. When Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sojourned to Pyongyang in 2002, Kim’s desire to wheedle US$ 11.4 billion in reparations obsessed him. The north bugged Koizumi’s room, and he likely knew it. The uncharmed visitor blared that unless Kim confessed to kidnapping Japanese, he would bolt.
A panicky Kim apologized. Alas for the painfully self-humbled panjandrum, his mea culpa backfired: the frothing Japanese spurned compensation. Doesn’t Japan’s silver fox outmaneuver North Korea’s potbellied ox? The mental jousting illustrated the un-western, quietly East Asian precept that negotiation does not supplant but extends zero – sum conflict.
Jang flicks moral Taekwando kicks at the south’s insular nationalists as well,who scapegoat the peninsula’s division on – surprise! – foreigners and “their” Cold War. However, Jang stresses that the north’s Kim’ism and the south’s uber-capitalism are knee to groin antagonistic.
East – West tensions terminated in 1989. It negates the external variable and isolates Koreans as blameworthy. But they would rather hold a grudge than a mirror.
Jang doubts the uprising in Kwangju on May 18, 1980 was fomented by democratic aspirations. He rues that pro-North Korean sentiment nestles in that bosom. By plan he presented “Lord of the Gun” to Kim on May 18, 1999 – the exact anniversary of the uprising against what was then a dictatorship in South Korea which took at least 105 lives when it was suppressed. Pyongyang exalted it as a victory by other means. Who knows the truth about that melee?
Turning to South Korea’s “sunshine policy’ of commerce with North Korea, Jang charges Pyongyang with exploiting the former’s desire for corporate paydays while returning nothing. But how did Kim adapt the songun or military first policy? Jang convincingly argues that Kim agreed to limit attacks to the sea. That contextualizes the 2010 sinking of South Korea’s corvette Cheonan.
Furthermore, the escapee writes that Kim most reviles China. Its aid compromises Kim’s father’s juche or self- reliance principle. But doesn’t that ironically mean the rapacious taker is blaming the exasperated giver? Then Jang warns that the UFD enthuses how gullible Americans will “believe any lie.”
Jang describes Kim’s “seed-bearing” program in which the regime globally dispatches pulchritudinous women for sex with white and dark men to have their children raised in the north as spies – but segregated, i.e. Hugh Hefner meets Aldous Huxley meets apartheid.
The book’s problem is that although Jang is an ex-UFD factotum, he omits addressing the progressives’ bribes to the north. But this is a chronicle of a man’s dash for freedom that begins when he sees the light.