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Review: A Book That Gives An Insider Account Of Surviving Under North Korea’s Dictatorship

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By Abhinita Mohanty

dear leader north korea croppedWhen Jang Jin-sung was trying to escape North Korea, little did he know he would be able to live to write a saga of Kim’s secret regime. For this former top party cadre and employee of United Front Department (responsible for inter-Korean espionage), staying alive was a miracle.

Jin-sung’s book ‘Dear Leader’ manages to spill some beans on the most secretive countries of the world. But what is different about this book? There are too many books, documentaries and ‘The Guardian Articles’ on the opacity of North Korea.

We are familiar with the term ‘hermit nation’ that has been bestowed on North Korea for keeping itself isolated from other countries (except, perhaps China in recent years). The opaqueness of the communist regime has been scary. It has perfectly suited the dictators to build an enigma around them. A Google search will also show why things as ordinary as wearing blue jeans or accessing the internet are banned in the country.

North Korea has been ruled by the ‘Kims’ for 60 years. It has earned the wrath of the international community and the UN for gross violations of human rights, politically motivated purges and investing in nuclear weapons and military when more than half of its population starves.

What Jin-sung’s book does is strike a chord with the ordinary readers. You do not have to be an expert or a ‘tweed jacket’ academician on North Korea, in order to comprehend the book. It is not another work echoing the complications of the political climate of the country or the intricacies of its international relation. It is also not an ‘as expected’ repetition of the lack of basic rights in a dictatorial regime.

In his book ‘Dear Leader’, Jang Jin-sung offers a personal journey, a humane story of one man who is forced to escape the country leaving behind his family. Translator Shirley Lee has done a remarkable job in bringing those emotions to the English version of the book.

The author was in his twenties but was already writing propaganda poems praising the then ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea Kim-Jong-il, father of the current autocrat Kim-Jong-Un. Jin-sung was an insider and almost had the privileged access to the compound of Kim-Jong-il and his minions. He was literally living in the same propaganda, parts of which he was assigned to create.
He eventually deciphered these facades of propaganda and saw the state machinery as solely created to serve a dynasty of dictators.

He came face to face with the ground situation when he visited his hometown. “It cost 10 won to wash your face with soap and water and five to wash with water alone.”
In a nation ruined by famine and economic degeneration, this was a common occurrence. Rations are state controlled and the highest is given to party worker cadres. So grocery follows the pecking order of the day. “Three days rations…applied to the ranks of ministers…..ordinary Koreans got monthly rations.”

Jin-sung’s native place Sariwon even has a Corpse Division. “They get rid of corpses….all sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg until they die.” Sung felt guilty for not knowing. The author was rich and unaware of the plight of his folks. “I could not believe they were eating rice by grain, instead of in servings.” Jin-sung’s ‘Dear Leader’ did not care and ate his rice balls.

Due to certain circumstances, Jin-sung had to escape along with his friend. Although he managed to reach China he was hunted by both Chinese authorities and North Korean agents. He faced starvation, homelessness and the fear of a horrible death or arrest and deportation. He was saved every time by a ‘good Samaritan’, mostly strangers.

Jin-sung’s story details his personal journey to regain his dignity as a free soul. It is also a story of the courage which a man took to leap towards his own freedom. “Freedom is freely given to anyone born in a free land, but others have to risk their lives for it.”

The book does quite well in chronicling the personal experience of the author. To call the book merely poignant is to bedim some of the hard facts. As he crafts his own story in an amazingly visual and tempestuous manner, Jin-sung tucks in a chapter or two on Kim-Jong-il’s manipulative strategy and conniving diplomacy. “North Korea uses dialogue as a tool of deception rather than of negotiation.”

The book briefly discusses the Sunshine Policy of diplomacy. It was aimed at improving the relationship between North Korea and South Korea through strategic cooperation. Kim-Jong il twisted it to extract higher economic benefit for his party.

‘Dear Leader’ is not for those who are looking to be an expert on the economy of North Korea, the significance of this country to its neighbour and the world, its relationship with other countries or its history. It is for those who want to know what it is to live there as a citizen, work in the roots of its impregnable secrecy and pushing the limits to gain your freedom. Above all, it is the voice of one man and the voice of many which have been suppressed.

A lot has changed since Jin-sung escaped. Kim-Jong-il’s son Kim-Jong-un now rules North Korea but the denial of democracy continues and some another story waits.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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