A poet laureate, a state propagandist, a state historian ― writer Jang Jin-sung, whose memoir “Dear Leader” about his life in North Korea was published in English in the U.K. in May, was all this before he escaped North Korea in 2004 at the age of 34.
By his account, Jang’s life in the North was comfortable, materially at least. As leader Kim Jong-il’s favorite poet, Jang was given the task of writing epic poems honoring the Dear Leader. His flair for writing found him employed by the United Front Department responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policy-making and diplomacy, where he wrote under the names of South Korean publishers that would eventually be passed on to democratic resistance movements in the South. At one point, he was part of an eight-member team of writers charged with compiling the “Annals of the Kim Dynasty” as a state historian.
The cover of Jang’s “Dear Leader,” a memoir published in the U.K. by Random House Group
All seemed well until that fateful day in January 2004 when Jang and his friend found themselves with nowhere to go but across the Tumen River into China to escape what would surely be execution for smuggling a South Korean monthly magazine out of the UFD office.
When Jang made the escape, he was carrying with him two notebooks of poems. The poems dealt with mass starvation, a mother trying to sell her daughter in a marketplace, the general misery of the people and the worsening tyranny of the North Korean regime ― an eyewitness account of what was happening inside one of the most reclusive and repressive states in the world. The heartfelt poems were written in secret, in the evening hours after Jang returned from a day of writing lies.
During the day, Jang worked in a bubble of mocked-up South Korea, writing praises of Kim Jong-il from the viewpoint of a South Korean writer. “It was creative writing, using South Korean expressions. It involved having to lie twice,” said Jang at the New Focus International office in a rundown building in northeastern Seoul on June 10. New Focus International is a website on North Korean news that he founded in 2011.
The discrepancy between the lies he had to write and the reality he witnessed and turned into poems suffocated Jang to the point where he wanted desperately to do something to disrupt the surface calm of his life. “I wanted to break the traffic law, at the very least,” he said, so restless and stifled and yet powerless he felt. “I even wished for something bad to happen to the regime,” he said.
It was purely by chance that Jang’s writing talent was discovered. Jang who was studying music at the Pyongyang Arts School, happened upon a collection of poems by the British Romantic poet Lord Byron, including “The Corsair.”
Writer Jang Jin-sung speaks at the New Focus International office in northeastern Seoul. Behind him is a satellite image of Pyongyang. (Park Hyun-koo/ The Korea Herald)
“It was the first time that I saw a pirate as a protagonist. For the first time, I cried reading,” Jang said. Before his encounter with Byron’s poems, Kim Il-sung was the only hero Jang had ever known. He resolved to become a writer.
Eventually, Jang’s poems reached Kim Jong-il and led to a face-to-face meeting with the North Korean leader ― a great honor, Jang thought.
Yet, meeting the Dear Leader had an unexpected impact on Jang. “Seeing him in person made me realize that he was only human, not a god. He was not interested in his people. He treated his officials worse than his dogs,” he said. “I realized Kim Jong-il was a dog,” Jang added.
After escaping to China, Jang wandered about the border for 32 days, looking for a way to get to the South. Along the way, he was helped by several Korean-Chinese but was also turned away by as many. In hindsight, Jang understands why people were reluctant to help. “The defectors are also at fault. They had earned a reputation as thieves, bad people,” he said.
It was only when he called a South Korean newspaper bureau in China claiming that he had information on North Korea that he was finally able to make his way to Seoul.
After a year of debriefing, Jang worked at the Institute for National Security Strategy for six years before leaving to found New Focus International. It is the only media dedicated to North Korea that is run by a North Korean defector.
“There are some 25,000 North Korean defectors. I wanted to start a newspaper that would represent their interests. Also, much of what passes as North Korean news is fiction. I thought this needed to be corrected,” Jang said, chiding the South Korean media for being irresponsible.
“There is a perception that North Korean defectors often lie,” Jang said, but he claims that New Focus International has never been found inaccurate with its exclusive reports. “The goal is to be faithful to the truth,” Jang said. The site is run by six reporters and several advisers as well as North Korean defectors.
North Korean defectors experience difficulties leaving the nightmare of North Korea behind and adjusting to the life here, according to Jang. “The biggest difficulty they experience is emotional instability. For 4-5 years, they continue to have nightmares,” he said.
“The key difference between successful and maladjusted defectors is interpersonal relations. The defectors must settle emotionally first ― Kim Il-sung has ruined people’s character,” Jang said.
Living in the South has brought about a change in Jang’s writing. “I find that my poems have become dull. I want to write novels. I want to say that love is stronger than hatred,” he said.
Married with a 3-year-old son, Jang said he would like to raise him abroad.
“I want to teach him English and I want him to enjoy all the things his father couldn’t enjoy in a free world,” said Jang. Even now, the son accompanies Jang on his international book tours and speaking engagements.
“I don’t feel free here either. In the North, I enjoyed unlimited freedom within the confines prescribed by the leader. In the South, there are many ethical, moral restrictions,” he said.
“But here I feel a great sense of achievement each time I accomplish something and I feel that possibilities are infinite,” he added.
By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer