In the past 15 years, about 26,000 North Koreans have slipped across their country’s semi-permeable border with China and found their way to South Korea. This flood of informants, most of whom were poor and living on the margins before they escaped, has significantly expanded our understanding of what it is like to be hungry, brainwashed and brutalized inside the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian state.
North Korea’s privileged few, however, have tended to stay put, and their lives in Pyongyang have remained largely hidden. In “Dear Leader,” Jang Jin-sung pulls back the curtain, revealing an inbred world of sycophancy, full stomachs and fear. As a former court poet to the ruling Kim family and a propagandist for a secret bureau that waged psychological war on South Korea, Jang is well suited to this task, having been, until his defection a decade ago, among the most pampered of the elite.
In his 20s, he became one of the “Admitted,” meaning that he personally met the late Kim Jong Il (whose third son, Kim Jong Un, is now the absolute leader). Jang ate flaming ice cream with the diminutive Dear Leader and got close enough to him to spy on his platform shoes, measuring the lifts at 21 / 2 inches. He also learned that Kim Jong Il, for all his purported love of poetry, cinema and the creative arts, did not speak grammatically correct Korean and used coarse slang while muddling subject and predicate.
Jang also learned firsthand that the official history of North Korea is a work of fiction, concocted to suit the Kim currently in power. After the death in 1994 of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, patriarch of the family dynasty, Jang says, he was asked to help cook the history books in a way that pleased Kim Jong Il, the patriarch’s eldest son and successor. Research for that task gave Jang access to archival documents that he says belie the outside world’s belief that the Great Leader groomed the Dear Leader for more than a decade to take over as dictator. Hereditary succession was not the father’s idea, Jang says; it was the son’s. Kim Jong Il “consolidated power by wresting it away from his father instead of receiving it from him,” Jang writes. If this is true — and documentary proof is likely to be unavailable until the Kim dynasty collapses — then our knowledge of how North Korea operates is indeed limited.
Kim Jong Il favored Jang because the bright young man had played the toady in verse, writing a fawning poem that described Kim as the “true leader” of all Korean people. Jang also had family ties to money and power. He was known among his friends as “the man who always carried at least one thousand American dollars in his wallet.” The cash came from an arms-dealing uncle who Jang says was one of the wealthiest men in North Korea. In a country where half the population does not have enough to eat, Jang was burdened with too much food. In addition to the standard rations for a member of the elite, he received a weekly package of imported goodies pilfered by the state from humanitarian aid donated by the United States and other countries. (In the 1990s, famine in North Korea claimed the lives of more than 1 million people.) Sometimes Jang received milk powder intended for starving babies. “Because we were given so much,” he writes, “it was a chore to collect our regular rations.”
At 28, Jang was assigned to inter-Korean espionage. He worked behind guarded walls where “the leader required us to inhabit South Korea’s collective psyche so as to undermine and triumph over it.” To do his job — producing publications that looked South Korean but were slanted to make the North look good — he read foreign periodicals that his countrymen were never allowed to see. Strict rules forbade him to take them out of his office, but Jang loaned one to a friend who left it on a train, where State Security found it and traced it back to Jang.
The pampered life was finished. Jang fled to China with the help of the $100 bills in his wallet and his party connections. A well-placed school chum sold him (and the friend who lost the magazine on the train) special travel passes for a train to the Chinese border. There Jang and his friend used their status as Pyongyang dandies to intimidate guards before making a dash across the frozen Tumen River.
It was only in China, where their money ran out and party status meant nothing, that escape turned into a punishing ordeal. North Korean authorities, desperate to keep Jang and his court secrets from reaching South Korea, spread an alert: Two murderers were on the loose. An important revelation in this book is the degree to which the Chinese police will work hand-in-glove with North Korean agents to try to hunt down high-value defectors. When it comes to poor defectors, Chinese authorities sometimes send them back to North Korea and sometimes ignore them.
Jang’s terrifying month on the run in northeastern China gives this book page-turning energy. But it takes up about two-thirds of the narrative, an odd storytelling choice for a book subtitled “A Look Inside North Korea.” Another curious choice is the author’s omission of any discussion about what may have happened to his family as a result of his escape. The families of elite defectors in North Korea are routinely sent to political labor camps and worked to death. For defectors, guilt about loved ones left behind can be paralyzing. Near the end of his book, Jang writes that “there are many things I cannot yet explain.” The fate of his family (which he has tried to protect by changing his name) is apparently one of them.
Jang has become a well-known writer and journalist in South Korea, where he founded and edits New Focus International, a valuable Web site on North Korea. With “Dear Leader,” he performs another important service: shining a light on the sheltered few who stand to lose everything if the Kim family ever loses its grip.
Poet, Spy, Escapee — a Look Inside North Korea
By Jang Jin-sung
Translated from the Korean by Shirley Lee
37 Ink/Atria. 339 pp. $27.99