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Finding Freedom in the midst of tyranny

When Jang Jin-Sung was invited to meet Kim Jong-il, known as Dear Leader in North Korea’s psychologically terrorized society, he felt let down because he was “confronted by an old man who looks nothing like the familiar image of the People’s Leader.”

Finding Freedom in the midst of tyranny

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-Sung (Atria Books, 2014)

When Jang Jin-Sung was invited to meet Kim Jong-il, known as Dear Leader in North Korea’s psychologically terrorized society, he felt let down because he was “confronted by an old man who looks nothing like the familiar image of the People’s Leader.” Invited to become a poet in “the Admitted,” a select group of people personally invited by Kim Jong-il, who have spent more than 20 minutes with him, Jang Jin-Sung was shocked when he noticed that the nation’s leader had taken off his shoes. He writes, “Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet! I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together. With this glorious invitation into his circle, I had thought I would enter and partake of a divine dimension in time.”

In 1999, Jang Jin-Sung took up his task as one of Dear Leader’s six elite poets in the United Front Department (UFD). The UFD promoted a policy of “Localization,” which meant that it copied South Korean ways of thinking and doing things in order to make South Koreans sympathetic to North Korea. The poets were to “be” South Korean poets who were supporters of Kim Jong-il. The work of the UFD’s writers “was circulated under the names of South Korean publishers, and even took on their distinctive literary style, preferred fonts and quality and weight of paper.” The same was true for music. UFD’s products were distributed through pro-North Korean organizations in Japan or other Asian nations, and to sympathetic groups in South Korea.

Being included in “the Admitted” and living in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, meant that Jang Jin-Sung and his peers received food rations while the rest of the nation was ravished by famine, due to Kim Jong-il’s despotic control of the economy and his failure to care for his people.

When Jang Jin-Sung received permission to visit his village of birth and returned home, he was shocked to see his malnourished friends and family, and emaciated, dead bodies along roadsides. Realizing that he was one of “the Admitted,” the people asked Jang Jin-Sung about Kim Jong-il and what he ate. Jang Jin-Sung lied repeatedly, knowing that while Dear Leader dined on extravagant fare, his subjects were starving to death. In those unsettling encounters, Jang Jin-sung was confronted by his own deception and was disgusted by the man he had become. He returned to Pyongyang a changed man, no longer willing to swallow the lies that he and all North Koreans had been coerced into believing. With his eyes opened to the poverty in his home village, he began to see the poor people in Pyongyang and to surreptitiously visit them, later composing poetry about their experiences.

In 2002, Jang Jin-Sung could no longer bear the weight of all the truths he had discovered about Kim Jong-il. He sought out a trusted friend, Hwang Young-min, with whom to share his discoveries. Because of a series of events, the two young men were forced to flee North Korea into China, where Jang Jin-Sung finally realized “that until now, I had not merely spent my life living within the borders of North Korea, but been imprisoned behind them.”

Unexpected kindnesses offered by people on their journey helped the two fugitives along their way. At one point, they decided to separate for safety reasons and carry on alone. In a series of surreal events reminiscent of a spy thriller, Jang Jin-Sung was rescued by South Korean spies and brought to the South Korean embassy in China, and then to South Korea.

In 2011, Jang Jin-Sung set up New Focus, the first news organization run by North Korean exiles. He gave the organization that name for two reasons: “in the hope that North Korea could pursue a new vision; and to show the outside world that there was a way of understanding North Korea beyond the way that existing frameworks of interpretation or government agendas allowed it.”

Today Jang Jin-Sung still lives in South Korea with his South Korean-born wife and their infant son. The North Korean regime continues to make threats on his life. This informative, disturbing story of one nation’s fall into tyranny and one man’s quest for freedom is a must-read for anyone who desires to understand North Korea’s true dynamics and longs to see justice prevail.

About the Author
Finding Freedom in the midst of tyranny

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema, Freelance writer

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema is a freelance writer living in St Catharines, Ont.