Every so often there’s a topic that catches what I call my “background interest.” These are the topics that I enjoy reading about but don’t obsess over. North Korea is one such topic—I definitely want to keep reading and learning about the country, the regime, the people, but I’m pursuing it gradually. Five years ago I read In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park’s story of escaping North Korea. Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea is a good complement. Both memoirs feature the intense, harrowing escape from North Korea to South Korea via China. Yet because Park and Jang Jin-sung had different lives in North Korea, they had unique experiences during this journey that shaped how they look at it.
Jang grew up in a rural town but ended up in Pyongyang. As a child he trained to be a pianist and a composer, but he eventually discovered a talent for poetry that allowed him to move laterally into writing. Jang eventually ends up in North Korea’s propaganda department. Every day, he and his coworkers would read South Korean newspapers, literature, and art, immersing themselves in the democratic culture of their southern neighbour. The purpose of this was not merely to produce propaganda for distribution in South Korea—Jang and his coworkers were also producing content under South Korean pseudonyms to leak to their fellow citizens. This created the impression that South Koreans supported the North Korean regime more than they do.
Jang’s work eventually drew the attention of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il himself. He becomes one of the Admitted, nearly untouchable even by the regular authorities. Yet as Jang rises through these informal ranks, the more he sees of the corruption and poverty in his homeland makes him question the way things are. Eventually, a lost forbidden book galvanizes Jang and a friend, Young-min, to make the dangerous attempt to escape North Korea and defect.
If you are expecting this book to be dramatic, sad, tense—yes, of course it is all of those things. No story of escaping North Korea is likely to be an overly happy one. Jang literally leaves behind his entire family with no hope of seeing them again. All the atrocities you might expect lurk here: secret police with arrests and executions; re-education camps; mass starvation and malnourishment and incredible poverty. We rightly condemn North Korea for these things … I do think it’s interesting that China abuses human rights as well, yet we are slower to condemn it because doing so runs against a lot of our governments’ economic interests.
But what makes Dear Leader distinct as a memoir is Jang’s experience as one of the Admitted. He has an intimate understanding of North Korea’s leadership that many other defectors never learned about until after they escaped. While I knew that North Korea uses propaganda, of course, Jang’s account provides so many details about how extensive an operation it is. It’s so tempting, when we talk about repressive regimes like North Korea, to make facile comparisons to literary creations like Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I say that these comparisons are usually facile because fictional totalitarian states never need to actually function, whereas North Korea does (albeit, perhaps, with a fragility propped up by foreign aid). Yet Orwell knew his stuff when it came to understanding how language and propaganda function in such environments, and Jang’s accounts read like something from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Now, of course, with this subject in mind the next question becomes: is this propaganda of a different sort? To some extent, sure, probably. I’m increasingly skeptical of memoirs of all sorts but especially from people who escape from environments like this—I know Park has been criticized for inconsistencies in her story, and I encountered similar issues with Tara Westover’s Educated. So it’s sensible to approach these stories with healthy skepticism—I believe Jang is telling the truth, but like any autobiography it’s going to be his truth.
Sometimes Jang shares moments that he isn’t proud of. He recounts how the stress of merely trying to survive as fugitives in China affected his friendship with Young-min. I think you could read this book as Jang being a selfish person—he escapes North Korea only because it’s that or interrogation and labour camps; people in China who help him disappear and he spends very little time reflecting on this at the end of the book. However, such a reading ignores or at the very least flattens the trauma that these experiences must bring. I’m not just talking about the escape and survival afterwards—even just growing up under this regime, the brainwashing one endures, must be traumatic.
So even though I read these books with an eye towards their unreliability, I also extend a fair amount of compassion towards their authors’ accounts. I am an incredibly privileged person who will almost certainly never endure the kind of hardship and strife that any North Korean citizen, let alone defector, experiences. Indeed, my smallness in this regard is reinforced by an observation of Jang’s:
Today, there are more than twenty-five thousand North Koreans who have made it to South Korea. Some of them have had to hide out in caves for years; others have been captured and sent back to North Korea, only to make another miraculous escape. If all their stories could be put into words, my life would barely fill one page of that book.
It’s humbling: Jang isn’t really an exception himself! He’s exceptional in the sense that he has had the opportunity and skill to write a book sharing his experience. But as far as escaping North Korea goes … there’s so many more people out there with their experiences.
Another thing to know about this book is that Jang’s style is very poetic. This is not surprising considering how much of his job was poetry. While I remained engrossed with the book in general, I found that the style clashed with the translation.
It might sound like I didn’t like this book very much or that I won’t recommend it, and that isn’t the case at all. It’s just that my praise feels rather hollow and predictable. If you want to know more about North Korea, about its inner workings, about the difficulties of escape, then this book is exactly what you want to read. If North Korea isn’t an interest of yours, then this book will be full of details that you don’t need to know.
I will keep reading about North Korea, both accounts from defectors as well as from non–North Koreans who have studied and learned about the country. One day, if I live long enough and am lucky, I might see re-unification happen. I can’t pretend I know what that means in the same way that Koreans do. But until then, I will keep trying to learn more.