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Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea Paperback – January 27, 2015
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
"Jang Jin-sung demonstrates unique insight into the lifestyle and power structures of North Korea's top elite. The tale, ending with his own dramatic escape, depicts Jang's gradual metamorphosis from total conformist, to serious doubter, to enemy of the state. Dear Leader is a compelling story told with the elegance and poetry of the Orient: a page-turner that will change the way the world sees this enigmatic country."--Susanne Koelbl "Der Spiegel "
"Gripping."--David Pilling "Financial Times "
"A remarkable story of struggle and survival."--Larry Getlen "The New York Post "
"A look inside the mysteries of North Korea by the former poet laureate for the late Kim Jong-il. Likely to fascinate anyone who's read Adam Johnson's Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master's Son."--Jocelyn McClurg "USA Today "
"'Dear Leader is a singular and powerful story, rare not only in its portrait of the inner workings of Pyongyang's elite circles, but rare because a "true writer"--almost unheard of in North Korea--was there to see it and to tell it."--Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master's Son
About the Author
Jang Jin-sung is a former poet laureate for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Since leaving the country he has become a bestselling author and widely solicited commentator on North Korea. He has been awarded the Rex Warner Literary Prize and read his poetry at London’s Cultural Olympiad in 2012. He now lives in South Korea and is editor in chief of New Focus International, an authoritative website reporting on North Korea.
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It's not just a searing indictment of the Kim dynasty or a political dissertation that details the organization and functioning of a Stalinist dictatorship. It's not just an intimate account of unimaginable human suffering that has been inflicted on a nation’s population over the past few decades by an evil regime. It's not just a thrill-a-minute international espionage story that follows two high-value defectors as they flee, starving and penniless, across the winter landscape of Korea and Northern China, hunted by security forces from both countries. In fact, it is all of these story lines, plus more. The range of its setting stretches from privilege to privation. It is a depiction of a place that seems surreal and hallucinogenic, though it is only too real. It is a story of a man’s awakening from a blinkered life to a wide world beyond his imagining – both its horrors and beauty. It is about his coming to terms with terrible truths and the equally terrible lies that he had helped to perpetrate. It is a buddy story about two young men on the run who share every human emotion possible – from valor to shame to frailty to brotherly love. And perhaps most importantly, it is an epic poem, written by a talented story teller. As such, the book touches the reader in ways that no other account of North Korea has done before. By interweaving original poetry and lyrical descriptions of artistic expression into a John le Carre thriller, there is something for everyone. It runs both wide and deep. As such, it has the potential to reach an audience that is broader than any book on the subject. One can only hope that it does, and that by burrowing deeply into millions of readers, it changes the perspective and energy of the global dialogue on North Korea.
Jang’s book is part memoir, part exposé. The core of the book is an account of Jang’s decision to escape North Korea, along with a friend. Jang, a poet personally honored by “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, had been working in a department of the Workers’ Party responsible for relations between the two Koreas—which really meant anti-South Korean espionage and propaganda. Part of his job was to write poems in a South Korean “voice” praising North Korea and the leadership of Kim Jong-il. In order to do his job, he was part of a select group of Party members allowed access to South Korean newspapers, books, and magazines, as well as Western consumer products sent in as foreign aid. Though he was not part of the true power elite, he was in many ways a regime insider. His observations, therefore, have an aura of both credibility and disillusionment.
Beyond the dramatic story of Jang’s escape, survival in China, and eventual relocation in South Korea, the book contains valuable and damning observations on North Korean history and politics. Jang had access to party insiders, as well as to historical documents unavailable to most people. So while his account is that of a very young man, it carries the conviction of the disillusioned and recently-enlightened, which one can see in his wide-eyed outrage when the shackles fall from his eyes and he sees the Kim regime for what it is. Jang offers valuable insights on a variety of topics, including Kim Jong-il’s rise to power and the ruthless competition with his father and the elder Kim’s allies that accompanied it, leading in turn to further ruthlessness and the rise to dominance of the Organization and Guidance Department within the Korean Workers’ Party. Jang also discusses the kidnapping of Japanese citizens to train North Korean spies, and the North Korean view of diplomacy as essentially a counterintelligence operation, which partly explains why Western governments find diplomacy with North Korea such a frustrating undertaking.
Jang is a romantic, and naïve in many ways. He says that reading a book of poetry by Lord Byron was one of the key factors in his disillusionment/enlightenment, as Byron’s openness in expressing emotions stood in stark contrast to the bottled-up North Korean society in which the only acceptable object of devotion was the state as embodied in the person of the leader. The heart of the book is Jang’s account of his decision to leave North Korea after some contraband materials to which he had access but which he allowed to pass out of his hands were discovered. He had to leave quickly, without much preparation, accompanied by the friend to whom he had loaned the materials. They carried little with them other than the clothes they were wearing, a notebook full of Jang’s poems, and some cash, which would come in handy later. They were lucky to escape the scrutiny, and the guns, of North Korean border guards, but their story of escape and survival is not simply a tale of crossing the Tumen River that forms North Korea’s northeastern border with China. Jang chronicles just how difficult it can be for an escapee even after crossing the river. The South Korean consulate in the Chinese city of Shenyang and many Korean churches were no help. Jang spent a month on the run, during which time he had to rely on luck and the kindness of individuals to survive and eventually make his way to freedom. That he did make it is a testament to how deeply motivating the desire for freedom can be. This is perhaps a useful reminder for any of us who accept our liberties too casually. Jang’s epilogue is both a moving conclusion to the story and a sober reflection on what the presence of thousands of North Korean escapees means.
On occasion the book reads a bit too much like a translation, or maybe the translator is just rendering too literally in English Jang’s way of expressing things in Korean. But that’s a small thing. This book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the inner workings of North Korea, and how one North Korean of a sensitive frame of mind found the desire, then the need, and ultimately the courage to leave in the hope of liberating body, mind, and heart. In addition to Jang’s own story, the book reinforces the conclusion that North Korea is not just a failed state, but what might be called a diminished state. The friend who urged me to read this book said that it convinced him of what he already thought—that North Korea is really run by just a very small number of people. It’s hard to argue with that. For Kim Jong-il, as for his son after him (the current ruler), it appears that being “leader” is an ego trip for which his whole country of roughly 25 million people pays a horrible price.