‘Doubting is an act of treason’

Writer and poet Jang Jin-sung fled North Korea in 2004. Now, he’s editor-in-chief of New Focus International, an independent news agency focusing on North Korea. He’s still fighting to make sure that the world will finally see what goes on in North Korea.

Review of ‘Dear Leader’ by Jang Jin-sung

‘It’s thrilling and toe-curling at once: his story about North Korea is so alienating and laughable yet simultaneously sad, because it’s all real. Kim Jong-il may be dead, but under his son, Kim Jong-un, little has changed.’

Read the UK’s review of ‘Dear Leader’.

He was an ‘intimate’ acquaintance of dictator Kim Jong-il. So when he had to flee the country – because of an illegal book that was accidently left on the metro – it was a big deal for North Korea. Jang Jin-sung still has bodyguards 24/7 for fear of being killed by the North Korean regime, not in the least because he is still advocating for a free North Korea. Jang wrote a book about it called ‘Dear Leader’ that was published in Dutch just this week and gave a lecture for Studium Generale and the Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen Tuesday. Prior to his lecture, the UK had the chance to interview Jang via a translator.

UK: You were a high-ranking official working for the propaganda department of the regime. You had many privileges and even met Kim Jong-il. Did you really believe what you were told about the Supreme Leader?

Jang: Yes! I believed everything I was told. That was the world I knew and those are the workings of the psychological and emotional dictatorship of North Korea. I did not doubt it and I was not able to, because doubting itself is an act of treason. On top of that, the systematic isolation actively stops people from comparing themselves to others. There’s a population of 20 million North Koreans, but only about 200 have access to information about the outside world. North Korea creates it’s own world. It’s literally the year 105 over there.

Aren’t there still people who know of the world before 1948, when Kim Il-song became president of North Korea?

It’s difficult to compare, because before the dictatorship of the Kim family, there was the Japanese occupation. Still, older people say that they lived better under the Japanese, when they still had certain freedoms, like trading in the market, the freedom to leave the country, or the freedom to have a lawyer if they committed a crime.

In your book, you describe how you left Pyongyang for a trip to the countryside and saw people dying of starvation in the streets. You describe how you resented them for not having tried harder not to die. How do you look back on those emotions?

I wrote a book of poetry about the era of the famine. However, looking back now, what I regret is the arrogance to even have a thought like that. I still had the luxury of feeling emotion. I was able to process what I saw and even write poetry about it. Those people were not living; they were only trying to stay alive and they could only care about finding the next meal. It’s only when you give up even doing that that you starve to death.

When you learned how the people were being fooled, your world was turned upside down. Were you ever sorry that that happened? Wouldn’t you have preferred to continue living with that dream?

Dream? It’s more like a nightmare. In South Korea, there are over 28,000 refugees now from North Korea. Most of them have nightmares for five or six years after. I myself had nightmares for seven years. That’s how strong this psychological world is, that’s how long it takes to escape mentally. They say that once you dream of South Korea at night, then you have finally gotten away. However, I would rather commit suicide than not know the truth.

Of course I’m also sad, but it’s the kind of sadness that comes not because of what I escaped from, but because of the stuff I couldn’t take with me. There’s only one way to overcome that: change North Korea.

You had to leave because if you were caught, not only you but also your parents and grandparents would have been sent to concentration camps. Do you know what has happened to them?

It’s impossible to find out anything about my family. I have attempted to, of course, but I have been fooled and scammed in the attempt many times. Still, I avoid talking about them in public. I’m afraid that if they are still alive, they will be used as a hostage weapon by the government.

After you made it out of North Korea, you had to face the Chinese police and intelligence services who were relentlessly pursuing North Korean refugees. Why were they so harsh?

It’s even harder to escape now. China has built an electric fence on their side of the border. They know that if they do allow people to escape, it means the current regime will collapse. The last thing China wants is for U.S. soldiers on the South Korean border to be able to move up. It’s not in their interest to change anything. North Korea is actually trapped by politics.

Is there a difference between the current regime of Kim Jong-un and the regime you fled of his father Kim Jong-il?

Jang: Not really. The continuing of the supreme leader into three generations is like the continuing of evil rule. What supreme leader you have really doesn’t matter, because the system is like a pyramid. Everything is focused on maintaining it, so even when the supreme leader does a little thing wrong, the whole system falls apart because it can’t handle the contradictions.

The world is scared of the North Korean regime and what it might do. Do you think it fully understands it?

No, they don’t. Where they’re wrong is that they think North Korea is in pursuit of national interests like a normal government: security or economic growth. However, it’s all about maintaining the system. European states have this thing called critical engagement policy with North Korea, which means you criticise the government, but also engage with it. But that only works if the regime actually has the interest of the nation at heart.

What can the outside world do to help the North Korean people?

They need to separate the regime and the people. Don’t appease just the government: also appease the North Korean people. A lot of countries have economic engagement and trade with North Korea, but they only trade with official companies. Why not trade unofficially?

However, the best aid is helping the North Korean people connect. Facebook announced they want to increase their range to Africa with new technology. That would totally collapse the current regime. You don’t need an invasion or a nuke or the U.S., you don’t need anything so big. You only have to give Internet access to the people, or broadcast into North Korea! No foreign government does that. The BBC has announced the intention, but it never acts upon that. But the regime can’t block everything. With free information, the regime cannot stand and it will not be North Korea that is collapsing, but the supreme leader system and you will have a new government. It is a simple strategy, but actually people are thinking too big.

Do you believe you will ever see North Korea again?

Yes, I believe I will. And it will not take long.