Review of 'Dear Leader'

Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

dear_leader.jpg Jang Jin-Sung is a former North Korean poet who worked in the United Front Department (UFD) of Korean Worker's Party, section 5 (literature), division 19 (poetry) of Office 101 (policy making section of the UFD). Jang was so beloved by the leader of North Korea at the time Kim Jong-Il that Jang attained status as one of “The Admitted” - A selected and untouchable close group of individuals that were beloved by Jong-Il. With these special privileges Jang had access to unfiltered information from outside of the country as he was tasked with writing poems that put forward the agenda of Jong-Il. As Jang learned more and more of the outside world he started to question the reality around him. Jong-Il was, effectively, a god where even language was bent to elevate his position. Here we learn of how Jong-Il was able to take over from his father's rule by undermining his power and turning him into little more than a figurehead.

Eventually Jang and a friend taken into his confidence escape into China only to experience hardship after hardship as they attempt to make their way to South Korea. The Chinese authorities are keen to clamp down on North Korean defectors and return them to their homeland so Jang and his friend are forced to travel as fugitives always on the brink of being caught and returned. If it was not for the generosity of several people and groups they come across Jang would not be here today to tell his story.

Of course given the secrecy of North Korea it is hard to be sure that what Jang says is entirely the truth but if only part of it is true North Korea is a terrifying place. Of course he is often at pains to emphasise that the people know no differently so do not see it this way, and I can see that as well.

The cult based on the obviously self-serving and power-hungry Jong-Il is truly terrifying and at the same time tremendously sad - That one person's greed could bend an entire country to his will (though he is only one among many others in world history, of course). The depravity that this has caused his people is quite unbelievable and painful at times to read. To further hear of his treatment in China after his escape is also something that I was not aware of - That the Chinese would not be in any way supportive as they seek to keep themselves, as they perceive it, in the “good graces” of their western neighbour.

Here there is a lot of discussion of the political situation in North Korea and how the country actually operates which coming from such an insider must be quite enlightening to many people. Jang, being in his position, was able to see both the internal power struggles but also how the average citizen lived. With his eyes unclouded by the education afforded to him in having access to external media Jang is able to see through what he has been brought up to believe to perceive the hypocrisy and injustice of what is happening and simply has to escape.

I found this book quite hard to read particularly the specific and frequent details of North Korean politics as well as the often vivid descriptions of physical torture and torment. Jang is a poet and coaches much of his writing on feelings and intuition which lends passion to his story but also tends to over emphasise particular points that are repeated throughout. Having said that, it is important to be aware that these things are happening so perhaps it is good that they are repeated to make sure we do not forget. Heart stopping and, frankly, unbelievable. That such a society still exists on this planet that often boasts of equal rights and freedom of expression is sad and demonstrates that we have much, much further to go.

Rating: “It is OK but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2017-02-18

Genre: Autobiography

Publisher: Rider Books

Publication Date: 2014

ISBN: 9781846044212