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Dear Leader: North Korea’s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths Behind the Regime, by Jang Jin-sung, Rider Books, RRP£20/Simon & Schuster, RRP$27.99, 368 pages
General Kim Jong Il,/ the General alone,/ is Lord of the Gun,/ Lord of Justice,/ Lord of Peace,/ Lord of Unification,/ Ah, the true Leader of the Korean people!” These are the stirring words of one of the late Kim Jong Il’s court poets, presented to the pot-bellied dictator in 1999.
Kim, succeeded on his death three years ago by his young son Kim Jong Un, was supposedly so moved by the poem that he underlined sections and wrote out the title by hand. As a result, the author was invited to become one of Kim’s “Admitted”, part of an elite group entitled to better food rations and certain protections from the vagaries of the police state.
The poet in question, who now writes under the pen-name Jang Jin-sung, fled North Korea in 2004. Dear Leader is both an account of his arduous escape through China and a reflection on his life as North Korean propagandist and counter-intelligence officer. It is billed as a unique insider’s account of how North Korea’s totalitarian state is actually run.
The book opens as Jang is summoned to see the Dear Leader. After several hours of travel through the night, Jang is disappointed with his first sighting of Kim. He is older than in his propaganda pictures and is playing distractedly with a Maltese puppy, ignoring the fervent shouts around him of “Long live the General!” Kim approaches Jang and asks the nervous “boy” – then in his twenties – if he wrote the laudatory poem. “Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right?” Kim is supposed to have uttered. “Don’t even think of lying to me. I’ll have you killed.”
The scene could be from the 2004 film Team America: World Police, in which string puppets attempt to foil a terrorist plot led by a maniacal Kim. One of the problems of Jang’s interesting and sometimes gripping book is that much in his account of the secretive North Korean state is impossible to verify. Seemingly fantastical revelations about how the system works must be taken entirely on trust.
What, for example, are we to make of the 3,000 researchers working in a special unit to prepare medicines and dishes for the express purpose of extending Kim’s life? (He died age 70.) Or the department that scours schools for the prettiest 13-year-old girls to be groomed for Kim’s delectation? Is it true, as Jang asserts, that Kim usurped the power of his father Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and “Great Leader”, who ruled in name only for the last years of his life?
In the end, we can only take Jang at his word and hope that he has accurate recall of events that took place over a decade ago. Jang was working for Section 5, Division 19 (poetry) of Office 101 at the United Front Department, responsible for inter-Korean espionage and diplomacy. His job was to impersonate a South Korean poet writing poems of appreciation for Kim, part of an elaborate ruse to persuade North Koreans that their leader was admired south of the border.
The department was involved in less esoteric work. When, in the late-1990s, Seoul launched its “sunshine” policy, aimed at thawing relations between the two Koreas, it was responsible for the counter “Sunshine Exploitation” strategy. This comprised of taking as much South Korean money as possible, while simultaneously launching attacks at sea in order to persuade Seoul to cough up more cash. Jang says that the money flowing from the South saved Kim, whose regime was faltering because of the hunger gripping the country. Rather than a buffoon, Kim is presented as something of a brilliant strategist.
When Jang originally published the book in Korean, it focused almost entirely on his escape, which starts when he obtains a special pass to take him to the Chinese border. Jang had become disillusioned with the North Korean regime, whose brutality became glaringly evident to him during a trip home when he witnessed old friends dying from starvation. The story of his flight through China has its exciting and humorous moments, though some of the reconstructed dialogue is a bit clunky.
In the English version, Jang begins with a longer account of the North Korean regime and his role within it. That seems to have been partly at the suggestion of the translator, who in a preface says that Jang was slow to realise what a treasure trove of secret information he possessed. The revelations about North Korea are indeed what give the book its primary interest. Korean experts, eager for any scrap of information to improve their knowledge of the Hermit Kingdom, will comb the text for clues. Ultimately, it is for future historians to determine how much light Jang sheds.
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor and author of ‘Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival’ (Allen Lane/Penguin Press)