Dear Leader | Jang Jin-Sung

Books | Review

non-fiction | history | autobiography | politics

First published 2015

27-year-old Jang Jin-Sung worked for the United Front Department (UFD) in Pyongyang. The department's job was to produce fake South Korean literature praising North Korea and it's leaders. His team was given access to books and newspapers from South Korea. Possession of these items would be punishable by death for ordinary North Korean citizens. Jang was asked by the supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, to compose an epic poem that could be used for psychological warfare. The poem was to promote the idea that the North's policy, known as Songun (military first), had been formulated specifically to protect the South. The poem was approved by Kim Jong-il, and Jang was allowed to meet the country's Dear Leader at a special ceremony.

In 2004, Jang was forced to flee the country when a book he had illegally taken from his office to give to a friend, went missing and was later found by the police. He and his parents would face certain death if he stayed in North Korea, so he and the friend who lost the book in the first place, make their way across the river into China, where they must evade the Chinese authorities who are intent on sending escapees back across the border. Eventually, Jang makes it to South Korea and safety, where he begins a new life - though he remains in constant danger and the authorities in the South must continue to protect him.

This is almost like an "Introduction to North Korea for Dummies". So few people actually know anything about the inner-workings of the repressive regime and the methods it uses to keep its citizens under control that Jang's descriptions of the public executions, starvation, corruption and nepotism seem so outlandish, that it's hard to believe that these things have happened and, I'm sure, continue to happen. 

The Kims' power and methods of rule could easily have been inspired by Shakespeare. The family dynamics, with conspiracies to wrest power from the father, uncles and cousins, make the Kim dynasty look like the most brutal soap opera ever broadcast. It sounds as if I am trivialising what is ultimately, a story of deep sadness and loss; a search and struggle for freedom and life. Looking in from the outside in, the Kims seem impossible to understand, but this book shows that they simply operate under their own rules and are terrified of losing their grip on power and falling from their throne. Like all despots, their egos are too fragile and they simply cannot bear the thought of not being worshipped by the people they oppress. 

My Verdict: This book was incredible. Interesting, moving, frightening and infuriating. It's hard to understand why the Kims do what they do, and why they feel no remorse for making their citizens suffer so much. This is a regime that has virtually no chance of being overthrown any time soon, and the (surprisingly few) North Koreans who do manage to escape must risk everything and be prepared to lose everything in the process. A story that is a wake up call to all of us who have freedom - DO NOT TAKE IT FOR GRANTED.

Review Award - 5/5 - Absolute MUST READ!

Posted 27.06.2022

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