A radically different perspective on the North Korean regime

On 8 May, the memoirs of Jang Jin-sung are appearing worldwide under the title Dear Leader. Dear Leader is a unique account of the North Korean regime from the perspective of an insider, written by someone who knew Kim Jong Il personally. Jang is the former court poet and propagandist of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. He fled North Korea in 2004, and managed to build a career for himself in South Korea as an analyst, poet and writer. Dear Leader offers a radically different perspective on how the regime works. It is also the moving story of a member of the elite who no longer wished to be part of the regime and decided to flee, with all the risks involved.

 

International praise

Following his escape from North Korea, Jang Jin-sung became one of the most outspoken and eloquent critics of the North Korean regime. He launched the digital newspaper New Focus (international edition) and has been internationally praised for his poetry. He was awarded the Rex Warner Literary Prize and read from his work at the London Cultural Olympiad 2012. As one of the most prominent North Koreans in exile in South Korea, he is eminently placed to interpret North Korea. As a young poet in Pyongyang, and one of the leading figures in the propaganda machine, he was responsible for writing an expurgated history of the Kim family. Under a South Korean pseudonym, he also wrote subversive literature which was published in the South, while singing the praises of the leader in epic poems. As a recognised literary and intellectual talent he was taken under the wing of Im Tongok, one of the most powerful (and to this day most unknown) men of North Korea.


An irreversible step

One of Jang’s poems attracted the attention of Kim Jong Il, which led to him being invited into the inner circle surrounding the ‘Dear Leader’. With all the privileges of such a position, such as luxury items, food that was both plentiful and of good quality, a travelling pass, and immunity from prosecution. In this position, Jang was privy to facts that had the status of State secrets in North Korea, such as the real story behind Kim Jon Il’s rise to power. His privileged status in North Korea did not, however, silence his conscience. The gap between the advantages he himself enjoyed and the way the large majority of people outside the capital city lived was so great that it finally drove him to taking an irreversible step. Together with a friend, he fled South.

Structural analysis

Jang’s memoirs change the way we look at North Korea. Jang was involved in many important negotiations with foreign nations and he describes the real motivations behind North Korea’s moves. Dear Leader manages to raise above the anecdotal level (a rare feat among books on North Korea) by offering a structural, eloquently worded analysis of this society, in particular the elite. For the first time, here is a description from inside the regime which gives some idea of why the inhuman prison camps are felt to be a necessity for this regime. The book offers a radically different explanation of who holds power in North Korea and the historical sequence of events leading up to this situation. As such, these memoirs are an absolute must-read for those who wish to formulate a sensible action plan with respect to North Korea.

A different voice

Another important aspect of Dear Leader is that at long last, we hear a North Korean voice which has is not sent by the regime. And one that is not claiming to speak for North Korea. Certainly in the context of North Korean Studies, it happens all too often that non-Korean speaking pundits (from university, media or semi-governmental organisations) claim for themselves both the ability and the right to speak for North Korea. As a result, the stories of those in exile are often reduced to data that must be interpreted by third parties (the ubiquitous Western professors and journalists) in order to be understood. It also often happens that those whose story does not match the generally accepted narrative about North Korea are ignored or not taken seriously. In some cases, the veracity of these stories is put in doubt (in other cases, on the other hand, this either does not happen, or it happens too late: think of the ‘hole-in-one’ myth about Kim Jon Il, the so-called execution by Kim Jong Un of his singing ex, or the story of how he had his uncle torn to pieces by hungry hunting dogs). This form of Orientalism (the structural patronising and dismissal of Asian (and other) countries and the factually denying of their right to speech) has been essentially banned in most areas of Asian Studies, but unfortunately, due to the country’s continued isolation, this ban does not apply to North Korea. This book offers a different voice and a different perspective, and it simply will not be silenced. The importance of the publication of these memoirs can therefore not be overestimated.

Spectacular media attention

The translation from Korean into English was produced by Shirley Lee, a PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuker in the context of his ERC-project War of Words (in Dutch). The pre-publication of Dear Leader has engendered much excitement. The publication has also garnered a spectacular amount of attention from the media. Both author and translator have been interviewed for CNN by Christine Amanpour, The Times Magazine devoted its frontpage to it and The Guardian published a long interview with Jang, Kirkus Reviews and The Economist are both wildly enthusiastic about it, and discussions and interviews are appearing in the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. The English translation is published in the US by Simon & Schuster and in Great-Britain by Random House in a series which also includes the memoirs of Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Shirin Ebadi.

North Koreans are perfectly able to speak for themselves

Supporting authentic North Korean voices, unfiltered by the regime, by non-Korean speaking academia, or by non-Korean speaking media, is an important goal of the Leiden Initiative on Northern Korea (in Dutch), a platform launched in 2012 by Remco Breuker and Koen De Ceuster. In this context, we are planning extensive collaboration with Jang Jin-sung and his organisation, New Focus. In the face of an international press seeking spectacular news from North Korea, New Focus tries to produce well-balanced news and analyses, created by North Koreans themselves. The academic world can certainly also achieve some progress in this respect. Too often still, North Koreans are being spoken for, and interpretations are being offered, without any real dialogue taking place with North Korean refugees. One of the reasons for this is that not everyone has the opportunity of engaging in a substantive and in-depth Korean-language dialogue. In collaboration with people such as Jang Jin-sung, the Leiden Initiative on Northern Korea is attempting to provide a platform for voices from North Korea that have often been unjustly ignored or ridiculed. In addition, Remco Breuker will be translating Jang’s memoirs into Dutch. This translation will be published after the summer by De Arbeiderspers. North Koreans are more than able to speak for themselves. Dear Leader is a perfect proof of this. The book combines the eyewitness report of a court poet and propagandist, the experiences of a counterintelligence operative and the structural analysis of a historian with the sensitivity and humanity of a truly gifted writer.

(8 May 2014/Remco Breuker, Professor of Korea Studies)

See also

Study in Leiden

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Koreastudies (in Dutch)

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Korean Studies