They can't silence me

Exiles from North Korea speak at a conference in Leiden

Hollandse Hoogte/CAMERA PRESS, Jude Edginton

By Marleen van Wesel

Before North-Korean writer Jang Jin-sung fled his country, he was a propagandist poet who had been required to praise the deeds of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in verse. “They’re capable of murdering me, but I have words.”

Grinning, Kim Jong-il told Jang-Jin-sung in 1999 that Jang could not possibly have written that poem himself and that he would have Jang murdered if he lied about it.
However, the fake accusations were, in reality, a compliment and started Jang’s great career as a propagandist poet for the Worker’s Party of North Korea. But Kim Jong-il’s attention had already drifted back to his Maltese puppy and even as the young poet bowed to the Dear Leader moments later, his idol began to crumble: the poet glimpsed Kim Jong-il’s stocking feet under the table. Without his thick platform soles, the great leader was just a short man – no more than one metre sixty – with aching feet.
Just a few years later, Jang found himself fleeing from his country as fast as he could with his friend Hwang Young-min. The latter had left a banned South Korean book in the train – one lent to him by Jang. “If that hadn’t happened, I would probably be still living and working in Pyongyang despite all my doubts about the regime”, says Jang (who has assumed a pen name) with the help of his translator, Shirley Lee, a PhD student at Leiden. “The consequences of political disobedience are serious – and not just for me if I had been caught. You see, the families of violators are severely punished too. The fact that I was attempting to flee meant I was desperate.”
He has written a book about his escape and his life before and after. The English version, Dear Leader, translated by Shirley Lee, was published earlier this year. Jang is one of the many thousands of North Koreans who have successfully managed to leave the country, but his high position within the regime make his a very special story. Joined by six other exiles, he will talk about his experiences at the conference A State of Legitimacy: North Korean Voices in Exile this week – and that is sorely needed, in his opinion. “The international image of North Korea is very persistent but it’s based on the assumptions of outsiders and it’s full of errors. Attempts to change the situation will only be truly effective if the international community listens to the North Koreans themselves.”
Jang also warns against reading too much into international reports about North Korea growing increasingly open since Kim Jong-un came to power. “The West might see more now that there’s more tourism, but at heart, North Korea is not more open. North Koreans still cannot communicate freely, they do not have access to information and they are still being forced to obey the regime.”
His own experiences in North Korea date from ten years ago, but he still maintains close ties with his friends as far as possible. His website, New Focus International, offers a glimpse into North Korean society.
He unravels the system bit by bit in Dear Leader. He led a relatively comfortable life as poetry has a prominent place in North Korean society, though novels had been particularly popular under Kim Il-sung. Poetry became popular when Kim Jong-il assumed power, though not due to the leader’s personal taste but for the mundane reason of a paper shortage. Poems allowed propagandist writers to extol the Dear Leader’s virtues on a single sheet of newspaper.
Jang was one such writer, employed at Section 5 (literature), department 19 (poetry) of Office 101 of the United Front Department (UFD), the department of inter-Korean espionage, policy formation and diplomacy of the Worker’s Party of Korea. Office 101’s name was intentionally vague to prevent people discovering what went on there, despite the unintentional reference to Room 101 in the novel 1984.
But this is what went on there, and it’s the truth, according to Jang: the staff were to follow the South Korean media closely and then copy the style and design as well as they could. For example, Jang and his colleagues would produce South Korean poems under South Korean names but expressing extreme support for North Korea.
One of the most conspicuous myths ever to be produced by Office 101 concerned the Titanic: Kim Jong-il’s father, Great Leader Kim Il-sung was born on the day that ship sank and Office 101 converted that coincidence into historic evidence by claiming that, on 15 April 1912, “the sun set in the West and rose in the East”. Later, Kim Jong-il even decreed that North Korean dating should start retrospectively on that day. In 2001, while Jang was still working there, UFD employees were given bikes on 15 April. The bikes were actually from a donation by South Korean Buddhists but humanitarian aid, in the eyes of the regime, was no more than a “threat to self-reliance”. Even milk powder, meant for babies, was handed out to Jang and his colleagues.
He only realised just how much his life differed from that of most other North Koreans when he visited his home village. Even the standard greeting: “Have you eaten yet?” – a kind of North Korean equivalent of “How are you?”– to which you shouldn’t respond by mentioning anything bad – had vanished. How can you answer when you scarcely have anything to eat? On the market, signs stating the prices of food had been replaced with warning signs listing violations punished by the firing squad: wasting electricity, hoarding food, gossiping. Back in the capital Pyongyang, he secretly devoted his time to writing sad poems, mainly about rice and hunger, instead of the Dear Leader. They would lead to a volume of poetry he managed to take with him when he fled. In 2010, he published his poems in a book titled I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won.
“It wasn’t difficult to switch to poetry I wanted write”, he recalls. “It’s more like being given wings and flying for the first time. Or more like your wings had been broken and you can flex them again for the first time.”
One of the first things that astounded Jang when he crossed the border into China was a calendar picturing bikini babes on the wall of a farmer who rescued Jang and his friend. Famous actresses sometimes adorned calendars in North Korea too, but they posed in ways that demonstrated their loyalty to the party somehow.
Mind you, not everyone was as helpful as the farmer, as most Chinese mistook the two refugees for notorious killers. North Korea persecutes refugees with all its might if necessary, sentencing exiles as “murderers”, just to make sure they will never try to escape the system.
These wonderful, often heart-breaking and sometime light-hearted descriptions might make you almost forget that the two friends’ unlikely journey isn’t the fruit of a rather over-imaginative fiction writer. As the lucky coincidences and narrow escapes mount, you realise just how many North-Koreans don’t make it. However, Jang doesn’t just dish out anecdotes but explains in careful detail the structures of the North Korean system and reveals how Kim Jong-il came to power.
North Korea is always the central theme of his work: he is currently working on a novel about the regime’s female victims. “It’s not just about the women who have been subjected to violence or sold as sex slaves, it’s also about women who were forced to love the Dear Leader. I want to give them back their dignity and their voices.”
Jang currently lives in Seoul where retaliation from the North Korean government still poses a threat, which is why he is guarded twenty-four hours a day. “They are capable of murdering me. I was too afraid to say what I wanted in North Korea, but if I allowed myself to be silenced by fear outside North Korea, I would be a coward. I shall tell the truth until I die. North Korea might threaten violence, but I have words.”

Jang Jin-sung
Dear Leader
Ebury Press, 352 pp. €22.99

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English page

They can't silence me

Before North-Korean writer Jang Jin-sung fled his country, he was a propagandist …