Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung
North Korea and its ruling Kim dynasty are often ridiculed in the West as eccentric megalomaniacs with odd habits and funny hair. But for those living under the country’s totalitarian regime, whose daily life – entertainment, relationships, even language itself – revolves around total obedience to the ‘Dear Leader’, whose whims and grudges are a matter of life and death.
Dear Leader is the incredible true story of Jang Jin-sung, a propaganda poet working in the counter-intelligence division, who finds himself hand-picked as a favourite of Kim Jong-il (who died in December 2011) – an honour that affords Jang a life of luxury in the communist state. However, upon witnessing staggering levels of brutality and famine on a trip to his hometown, he becomes restless, and yearns ‘to write realist poetry based on what I saw, and not loyalist poetry based on what we were all told to see’. When a misplaced document leads to charges of treason, Jang and a friend become fugitives, fleeing to China with the aim of seeking asylum in South Korea.
Lost, penniless and surviving only on the kindness of strangers, Jang’s harrowing account of life on the run brims with danger, secrecy and near-misses – it’s a thrilling read. Underneath this action-packed narrative runs an ever-present current of deep sadness, as Jang interweaves his story with recounted experiences and explanations of the regime’s corruption and cruelty. Jang exposes Orwellian levels of propaganda, convoluted military double-bluffs aimed at South Korea and the West, and Kim Jong-il’s manipulation of the cult of Kim Il-sung to remove his enemies and silently usurp his father – all while the North Korean people starved. Dear Leader is a rewarding read and an important book – not only for the secrets it exposes, but as a comprehensive introduction for general readers into the diabolical circumstances faced by the people of the Hermit Kingdom.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.