The title is slightly misleading. Jang Jin-Sung was one of the senior North Korean propagandists, not the most senior. However it seems oddly appropriate for a book about North Korea to be misleading in its title.
As a senior propagandist he writes poems about the Dear Leader, under the pseudonym of a South Korean poet espousing the virtues of the North Korean state against the ‘tyranny’ of the South state which until 1987 was a military dictatorship.
Jin-Sung’s rise through the ranks, convinces him that almost everything he has been taught to believe was false. He becomes increasingly disillusioned with the regime. In 2004, he decides to flee the state with a friend, when authorities find that he has been sharing private Western literature with those who don’t have the clearance to view such content.
The books details his journey from North Korea into China and eventually into South Korea. It is at times a thriller, other times a political history.
It is filled with shocking and detailed information about the Kim family regime. It is almost impossible to go into detail in a review because any subtraction in detail would detract from the powerfully woven revelations about the state.
Most shocking for me was Jin-Sung’s return to the province he grew up in. Set during the North Korean famine of the 90’s, the province had been reduced to a place of poverty and death. In fact the people so poor and death so common, local party officials were paying desperately poor people to remove the bodies of dead beggars from the streets.
The plight of a local family that Jin-Sung knew as a child was heartbreaking. Living off the residue produced when rice is boiled and saving the rice for as long as possible.
Public trials are a farce. Accusations are read out by army personnel, judgements given immediately and death by the firing squad performed publicly in the market for all to see. Not that anybody can afford anything sold at the market.
It is impossible to read these sections passively.
As as a Western reader, i’m most shocked by the extent to which North Korea controls the thoughts and actions of its people. I have difficulty comprehending it.
The cult of personality which surrounds the Dear Leader is nothing short of incredible.
When Jin-Sung meets Dear Leader Kim Jong-il he is shocked to see that his feet swell. He had been taught that the Dear Leader was a semi-god. Did not get sick or even use the toilet. He was the perfection that all North Korean’s must aspire to. It is here that Jin-Sung begins to question the truth of his regime.
North Korean’s must feel an un-abiding love for the Dear Leader that overrides their love for any person or any object. When a woman comes to his rescue in China, he is shocked when she explains to him what a ‘fiancé’ is and describes him as her ‘honey’ or ‘love’. He is stunned to hear somebody publicly acknowledge her love for another person and not the Dear Leader.
There are many more powerful stories that permeate this book. The kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean children so they can be raised sympathetic to the regime. Mother’s selling their children, because as they will most likely die from starvation, at least there is somebody to look after her children.
While media coverage focuses on North Korean rhetoric, its power struggles and Kim Jong-Un’s haircut, this book refocuses our attention to the horror and desolation the North Korean people suffer at the hands of its regime.