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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 7 page 21



Dear Leader
Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea

by Jang Jin-sung
translated by Shirley Lee
Atria (Simon & Schuster);

ISBN 978-1-4767-6655-3; eBook ISBN 978-1-4767-6657-7

reviewed by
Ian Allaby

Remember how North Koreans wailed uncontrollably, tore their hair and clawed the pavement when Dear Leader Kim Jong-il kicked the bucket a couple years back? This exhibition of mass hysteria was not something new. North Koreans had done this sort of thing before. During the great famine of 1995-1998, when Kim himself appeared on their communal TV screens weeping for his people, the famished people all across the land began weeping too, weeping for the weeper.

In Dear Leader, defector Jang Jin-sung gives us a first-hand account of how this phenomenon works at the individual level. It's 1999 and Jang, along with a handful of other favored cadres, is attending an invitation-only dinner at one of Kim’s villas. A singer is brought in for entertainment. As she intones some maudlin Russian folk melody, Kim draws out his handkerchief. Seeing him do that, the cadres draw out their handkerchiefs too. The leader dabs his eyes. The cadres likewise begin to shed tears. “Can I escape this banquet with my life intact?” Jang asks himself. “But before I can think any further, my own eyes feel hot and tears begin to flow down my cheeks.” He feels the pressure, out of loyalty to the Dear Leader, and in solidarity with his colleagues, to cry. “As I repeat these words in my heart, I must cry, I must cry, my tears grow hotter, and anguished shouts burst from somewhere deep within me.”

The room is filled with sobbing until the song ends and the lights go up again. Then, back to normal.

Jang was born into the North Korean upper class, or what counts as such. He was an honoured cadre whose job was to sit at a desk and write poetry. (That’s why I wanted to see this book. I thought, hey, at least someone is hiring poets.)

In 2004, Jang defected to South Korea. Dear Leader recounts his adventure, interspersed with sensational dirt on the geeky yet murderous dictator Kim Jong-il.

Let’s call Kim Jong-il simply Kim. His dad was Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. His son is Kim Jong-un, the country's current leader. Readers inclined toward the psychological basis of history will find it interesting that Kim was a pipsqueak — 5' 3" without his 2½" platform shoes, Jang tells us. His bouffant hairdo gave him another inch or so. Vanity was a key trait, not to say a driver of the economy. Kim believed the nation needed him so badly that it had to employ 3,000 researchers concocting foods and medicines to maximize his longevity.

One problem, before we continue. Dear Leader author Jang Jin-sung was no ordinary poet like you and me. He was a propaganda poet. He worked in the United Front Department (inter-Korean espionage), Office 101 (policy branch), Section 5 (literature), Division 19 (poetry). His specific role was to pretend to be a South Korean poet writing in praise of Kim. The idea was to have North Koreans believe that thinking men in South Korea admired North Korea's dear leader.

When Jang defected, South Korea signed him up right away as an intelligence analyst for their side. Also, "Jang Jin-sung" is a cover name. The author’s real name is secret.

Knowing all this, you naturally ask: how can I be sure that Dear Leader is not itself some state-sponsored smear of the dear departed North Korean headman? After all, South Korea and others have an interest in reminding us what a nasty, backward place North Korea is.