Monday, May 19, 2014

Groove Book Report - Dear Leader - Jang Jin-Jung - Random House

Kim Jon Un, who was succeeded on his death by his son Kim Jong Un, was apparently so moved by a particular poem that he highlighted various sections and wrote out the title by hand. It's author was invited to become one of Kim’s “Admitted”, an elite group entitled to better food rations and certain protections under the auspices of the police state. 

The poet now writes under the pen-name Jang Jin-sung.  He fled North Korea in 2004.  Dear Leader is an account of his arduous escape through China to the west and also a reflection on his life as North Korean propagandist and counter-intelligence officer. It's billed as a unique insider’s account of how North Korea’s totalitarian state is actually run.  It opens as Jang is summoned to see our Dear Leader (yes, that's what they call him!). After several hours of travel through the night, Jang is disappointed with his first sighting of Kim. Being older than in his propaganda pictures and playing distractedly with a Maltese puppy, ignoring the fervent shouts around him of “Long live the General!” Kim approaches Jang and him (then in his twenties) if he wrote the poem that he loves so much. He intimidates him: “Someone wrote it for you, isn’t that right?” because “Don’t even think of lying to me. I’ll have you killed.” Kim really is an arsehole dictator, straight out of a Hollywood cliché'.

And you'd be forgiven for wondering if all this is really true!  Because one of the problems of Jang’s interesting, gripping book is that so much is impossible to verify.  There is seemingly fantastical revelations about how the system works must be taken entirely on trust and I wonder how the people have not found the courage to rebel!  Despite the complete shut out, how come there is no internet rebellion, smuggled movies or even the adoption of Jeans and Rock'n'Roll.  Surely it can't be all one way with no gratification.  North Koreans can't be that dumb! Can they? 

I mean what, for example, are we to make of the 3,000 researchers working in a special unit to prepare medicines and dishes for the express purpose of extending Kim’s life? (He died age 70 so that clearly failed! ) Or what about the department that scours schools for the prettiest 13-year-old girls to be groomed for Kim’s appetite? That was truly gross.  I really hope that wasn't true!
In the end, we can only take Jang's word for it.  If it's true then this is  a brilliant case for foreign intervention.  So why hasn't the West intervened? You'd also wonder how far Jang has gone to protect credibility.  Essentially, I can't handle the truth.  And I wonder if you could, either.

When Jang originally published the book in Korean, it focused almost entirely on his escape, which starts when he obtains a special pass to take him to the Chinese border. Jang had become disillusioned with the North Korean regime, whose brutality became glaringly evident to him during a trip home when he witnessed old friends dying from starvation. The story of his flight through China has its exciting and humorous moments, though some of the reconstructed dialogue is a bit clunky.  The English version  begins with a longer account of the North Korean regime and his role within it. That seems to have been partly at the suggestion of translator, who in a preface notes that Jang was slow to realise what a cache of secret information he had. These revelations are absolutely terrifying.  Korean experts, eager for any scrap of information to improve their knowledge of the Hermit Kingdom, will no doubt comb this for clues. But what we really make f this depends on what you are prepared to believe.

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