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

Posted on January 15, 2016 in Books

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.