Dear Leader // Jang Jin-Sung
Behind every great leader there is a propaganda machine creating their desired public image. In North Korea this propaganda machine once included, Jang Jin-sung, a poet who rose quickly through the ranks of the country’s elite. Eventually he was granted the patronage of and a meeting with Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s once omnipresent leader.
In his role at the top of North Korea’s political elite he wrote epic poems about the ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il, built up the myth story about North Korea’s founding and acted as a spy within the ranks of South Korea’s intellectual elite. He achieved a position in the ‘Hidden Kingdom‘ of North Korea that few could dream of, giving him access to state secrets that only a handful of people were ever privy to.
In Dear Leader Jang Jin-sung opens North Korea to the world. In this famously closed state few realities ever leak out, but within these pages Jang has broken through the myths and global stereotypes to present the reader with the real North Korea.
Even within the opening pages of the prologue you get a sense of the North Korea that world has not seen. In Jang’s description of the ‘Extraordinary Summons’ you get a sense of the personal paranoia of Kim Jong-il, their precarious position with other nations and the violent undercurrent that cuts through the heart of the state.
The world Jang talks about appears to present two distinct versions of the North Korean state. The first is the North Korea experienced by ordinary citizens; the power outages, the strict police state, the indoctrination of the nation’s youth. The second version is the unseen version. This state is the exclusive state inhabited by the Kim’s and their inner circle. In this life the leader is revealed as mortal; a normal person, but one whose power is unrivaled across the world. He has a personal army ready to carry out his every whim or wish, beautifully appointed estates, personal privileges (including exclusive railway stations) and the ability to change the course of the North Korean state through a single sentence.
But Dear Leader is not simply the story of the North Korean elite. If it was, the story would never have emerged. Instead it would have stayed unspoken in the mind of Jang Jin-sung. Dear Leader is in-fact the story of Jang’s rise and fall through the hierarchy of North Korea. During this fall from grace Jang was forced to flee the state and in these chapters his escape to China is played out in harrowing detail.
It all started with a visit to his home town. This was no socialist, utopian paradise or example of their ‘Dear Leader’s supreme governance, but rather a demonstration of the realities in North Korea. This was a town of starvation and it shocked Jang. The doubts established in his first meeting with Kim Kong-il, where he saw the frailties of the leader, only grew once he saw the frailties of the state.
Then came a simple exchange between two intellectuals; a forbidden book passed from Jang to his friend, Hwang Young-min, a famous and successful composer. This book sparked the beginning of Jang’s end. After the secret police find out the two colleagues; the poet and the composer fled to China. However, in China, there is little refuge for a North Korean runaway. In the time that followed their arrival into China they are forced underground, always fearful that they would have to return to North Korea. During this time the two separated and whilst Jang survived, Hwang committed suicide.
Jang’s journey ended in the South Korean embassy in Beijing, a place the poet could finally feel safe.
Dear Leader is, beyond doubt, one of the most enlightening and engaging books to have been written in years. Rarely do readers get the chance to look behind the high walls of the world’s most secretive state, but in this book North Korea is opened up. Kim Jong-il is presented as a human, rather than the larger-than-life character the world saw and the state’s flaws are clear, like scars, across this Far Eastern nation.
Powerful, moving and enthralling this book marks a point in history. A point where the world was let inside the court of the Kim’s and North Korea was revealed as never before.
RRP: £20 // Rider Books // 2014