As a beloved propagandist of North Korea’s dictatorship, poet Jang Jin-sung lived to serve his leader. Then the bubble burst. By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

Poet Jang Jin-sung’s secrets and lines

Author of Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung.

In this story

It was Kim Jong-il’s unclad feet that undid his divinity. In 1999, Jang Jin-sung, a former state poet laureate from North Korea, was summoned to meet the “Supreme Leader”, who ruled the hermit state with an iron fist from 1994 until his death in 2011. 

Jang, then 28, had written a poem that had taken the bouffant-haired dictator’s fancy. Kim alone, Jang wrote, was “Lord of the Gun” and “Lord of Peace”, “Lord of Unification” and “Lord of Justice”. He believed it. To Jang, as to most North Koreans, Kim was not only the true leader of all the Korean people but God himself. 

At a dinner, where guests devoured ice-cream clad in flames while the rest of the country went hungry, Jang was commanded to chink glasses with Kim. As he recalls in his book Dear Leader, now translated into English for the first time, Jang stood before Kim bent double at the waist in a deep bow. 

Then he caught a glimpse of Kim’s bare feet. The shock was abrupt. Jang had thought this man celestial. But here were his toes! There were his mortal shoes, tossed aside! They proved that Kim too suffered from sore soles. Worse still, they contained an inner platform of some six or seven centimetres designed to add an illusion of height. Jang should have been overawed. Yet all he could think was, “Those shoes have deceived his people.” 

The meeting marked Jang’s admittance into a coveted inner circle of North Koreans who had met the general. But what should have been the happiest moment of his life became a catalyst for his desertion. In January 2004, Jang defected from his homeland by crossing the frozen Tumen River to China. While Jang eventually made it to the South Korean embassy in Beijing after a month on the run in subzero temperatures, the companion he fled with did not. Hwang Young-min was caught by Chinese authorities and, on the news that he was to be sent back across the border, committed suicide.

Such traumas seem far away on the week of the Sydney Writers’ Festival as Jang sits overlooking the harbour, sipping bottled water and basking in the sunshine. A small man, dressed discreetly in a blue suit and pale pink shirt, Jang clutches his iPhone and talks through his translator, Shirley Lee, who encouraged him to expand his story for a Western audience. Although polite, he rarely makes eye contact. 

“The first time I met [Kim Jong-il] it was like I was meeting God,” muses Jang, 43, with a small sardonic smile, mocking his own past puerile wonderment. “Then the facade collapsed. The propaganda had blown him up to this pedestal of perfection and holiness. It’s ironic. If I had considered him as a flawed being, I would probably have been trying to find the good things in him. But here was a guy thinking he was not born of a woman and a man but actually came out of [holy] Mount Paektu. That’s why it was so instant. It became absurd.” 

Jang not only bought into North Korea’s seemingly fantastical propaganda but was also one of its producers and propagators. In his job at Section 5, Division 19, of Office 101 at the United Front Department, the government wing responsible for inter-Korean espionage, he posed as a South Korean poet writing verses that praised the North. These were then disseminated through state newspapers to prove that their southern cousins also venerated Kim Jong-il. 

Cultural control was, and remains, a cornerstone of Pyongyang’s grip on power. “There are songs you have to know by heart, poems you have to know, movies you have to see. There is a whole syllabus on repeat for all the decades of your life,” says Jang. Images of North Korea abroad focus on military goose-stepping and missile launches. But within the country it is the threat of physical punishment mixed with the all-pervasive claws of state indoctrination through film, music and art that keep the populace in check. 

Under Kim’s father Kim Il-sung, the novel had been a favoured medium to distil values. But in the 1990s, when the economy collapsed, paper shortages helped shift the focus from novels to poetry, which could encapsulate succinct messages on just a single sheet of paper. Writers such as Jang worked under a strict chain of command. Art’s purpose was to lionise the leaders; content had to prioritise duty to the state over individual desire. “Anything that would be seen by at least more than three eyes had to be for public enrichment, even a tombstone or road sign,” says Jang. 

The poet’s job was to spin myths. So, to help make the Kims kings, how many fables did Jang compose? “Too many to tell,” he shrugs. One, he says, went like this: when Kim Jong-il’s birth mother died, rather than dwell on his own sorrow, he provided on-site guidance at a brick factory. It was made up, of course. At that time Jang fervently, feverishly believed in the cause. “No matter how many lies I was putting out, it was all for a righteous person, our legitimate leader,” he says. “Everything could be justified.” 

Today, Jang is married to a South Korean and lives in Seoul with his wife and baby boy. But when he left North Korea he also left behind his family. The regime’s key stranglehold on dissent is a system of “guilt by association”. If an individual steps out of line their entire extended kin is liable to be punished. It is estimated that 200,000 prisoners, including children, are festering in the country’s brutal gulags. 

Since he left, Jang has not been able to make contact with his loved ones. When the subject is broached he descends into silence. A helicopter buzzes overhead. Eventually he says, painfully, “I don’t really care about my own life but what really hurts me is thinking that what I am saying might be having repercussions on family back home. I know I need to tell the truth but how much more do I need to make my family suffer for it?” 

1 . Visiting home

At the height of his success as a poet, Jang received permission to return to his home town Sariwon, south of Pyongyang (any travel required special permits). The journey marked his most traumatic experience: witnessing once healthy friends and neighbours starving to death, as well as the public execution of a local farmer who had stolen a bag of rice. In the “Arduous March”, as North Korea’s 1990s famine is euphemistically called, up to three million people perished. 

To placate this desperate population, the ruling party penned slogans. “If you survive a thousand miles of suffering, there will be 10,000 miles of happiness,” the people were told. On television, the state broadcast a song called “The Rice-balls of the General” in which Kim Jong-il travelled up and down the country, hundreds of miles at a time, to help his charges sustained only by a single rice ball. 

But Jang became haunted by the orgy of food that he had witnessed “Dear Leader” feast on. Guilt started to gnaw at him: while his friends suffered, he was given a $12,000 Rolex watch, French cognac and coveted weekly rations. Favour from the top literally meant the difference between life and death. 

Back in Pyongyang, Jang ferociously read the South Korean newspapers and books stored in his office which only he, and a few others, had access to for their work. The documents – many of which had whole passages criticising Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il blacked out, visible only when Jang held them to the window – told a different story to the one he had learnt at home: a story in which North Korea started the devastating 1950-53 Korean War, which divided the nation; a story in which Kim Jong-il was a despotic tyrant, not a supreme fatherly being. 

Jang’s mistake – or his deliverance – was to surreptitiously pass one of these forbidden books to his friend Hwang Young-min. When Hwang lost the book on a crowded subway, a crime punishable by death, the pair decided they had no choice but to flee. The only option to give his family a chance at life, says Jang, was to leave without telling a soul. 

Hwang’s subsequent suicide – he chose death rather than the gulag – was not an individual event but “just one of many millions of psychological deaths, emotional deaths, real deaths that North Koreans have to deal with every day,” says Jang. He adds: “I am a North Korean who made it and he is a North Korean who did not, so I need to live on behalf of him, I need to do what he cannot do, I need to give his voice back because he is unable to speak now.”

If Dear Leader is a personal ode to lost friends, it also promises to be an insider’s account of North Korea delivered from a court poet with key access to leaders. As with all North Korean defectors, it is impossible to verify Jang’s story; some North Korea watchers fear that he may have exaggerated his past influence and proximity to power. There is also no way to substantiate large swaths of his more far-fetched claims: for example, that Kim Jong-il had a team of 3000 food engineers working solely on finding recipes to extend his lifespan. “Even in North Korea, I doubt poets have quite the political access required for the analysis he provides,” notes Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.

The jury on whether Dear Leader is an accurate portrayal of a state gone mad or an aggrandised version of events will not be out until the hermit state eventually opens up. Until then Jang must be taken on trust. His book has already created waves. But for the author, every success brings with it pangs of regret. He worries that attention might increase atrocities on his loved ones back home. And not only there. In Seoul, where Jang worked as an intelligence analyst, he lives under the shadow of 24/7 police protection. 

Change, if it does come, will be from below, Jang insists. Ordinary North Koreans today are caught up in what he calls “the South Korean wave”: they emulate South Korean fashion or secretly listen to South Korean soap operas smuggled across the border. Flourishing black markets have given the people confidence to barter and trade. “North Korea does not change because the leaders decide to be nicer and give up their power – it changes because of the South Korean wave and market economy,” he rails, frustration creeping into his voice.

He continues: “The problem is not that people’s hearts and minds aren’t open. It’s because you are in a chain gang and when you jump of a cliff, your wife, baby and family comes with you. That is what is stopping North Korea from reforming.”

Jang jumped. Was it worth it? Was it worth risking his own life, his relatives’ lives, his friend’s life, and now, if he is to be believed, his new family’s lives as he survives under the constant threat of assassination from a regime angry that he has revealed its secrets to the world?

He clasps the chair with both hands and turns to look at the water. He shakes his head. “I don’t want to escape, I don’t need to escape, I don’t need to kill myself, I can deal with it, but also my conscience won’t leave me alone. If I shut up it is because I have given in. By shutting up I am making a decision.”

It was not always an obvious decision. Jang recalls that when he first arrived in South Korea he pretended that he was from a region of the country with a similar accent to the North. But, he says, “I felt really oppressed by that lie. I’m not South Korean, this is not my history. So I said: ‘I’m from Pyongyang. I am a North Korean who has come here because I cannot speak freely in my own country. One day, when I can, I will go home again.’”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Secrets and lines".

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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes on current affairs and the arts for the BBC, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal.