Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-sung (Translated by Shirley Lee)

ISBN: 147676655X
Published: May 13th, 2014
Publisher: Atria / 37 Ink
Read from December 6th to 13th, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In this rare insider’s view into contemporary North Korea, a high-ranking counterintelligence agent describes his life as a former poet laureate to Kim Jong-il and his breathtaking escape to freedom.
“The General will now enter the room.”
Everyone turns to stone. Not moving my head, I direct my eyes to a point halfway up the archway where Kim Jong-il’s face will soon appear…
As North Korea’s State Poet Laureate, Jang Jin-sung led a charmed life. With food provisions (even as the country suffered through its great famine), a travel pass, access to strictly censored information, and audiences with Kim Jong-il himself, his life in Pyongyang seemed safe and secure. But this privileged existence was about to be shattered. When a strictly forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing, Jang Jin-sung must flee for his life.
Never before has a member of the elite described the inner workings of this totalitarian state and its propaganda machine. An astonishing expos√© told through the heart-stopping story of Jang Jin-sung’s escape to South Korea, Dear Leader is a rare and unprecedented insight into the world’s most secretive and repressive regime.

Review:

Dear Leader is a unique book in that it is a memoir written by a North Korean defector. That makes it stand out as it is so rare to get such a first-hand glimpse of what life is like inside North Korea. Jang Jin-sung worked as a poet in North Korea and even received praise from Kim Jong-il, allowing him to reach a privileged position within North Korea's power structure. That makes his story unique even among North Koreans. Jang Jin-sung wasn't starving when he lived in North Korea. In fact, he describes within the book the horror he felt when he traveled outside of Pyongyang and realized how horrific life was for those outside of the capital.

Because of his position, I think Jang Jin-sung's story feels somewhat complicated. There are so many people starving within the country, and he wasn't one of them. In that respect, his life was easier. Still, he lived in a society so repressive that there is little doubt it would take a psychological toll. (His description of the dinner he ate with Kim Jong-il comes to mind.) I think the privileged outlook he provides into life within Pyongyang is an important one.

Between the stories of his life in North Korea to the story of escaping and running from the authorities in China as he struggled to get to the South Korean embassy, which would grant him citizenship, his story is extremely remarkable. I was left feeling extremely emotional about not just Jang Jin-sung's experiences but the experiences of others that he meets along the way (both North Koreans in the country and those he meets after defecting).

I appreciated getting to read a first-hand account of North Korea from a North Korean, and I appreciated how much humanity Jang Jin-sung incorporated into his story. He also incorporates the stories of others from those of his friends living in his hometown (who he discovers are starving upon going home for a visit) to the women who have also escaped North Korea, been sold by human traffickers, and yet remain determined to not go back to North Korea. In addition to all of that, Jang Jin-sung describes how he believes North Korea's eventual downfall must come, and I believe his perspective, as a North Korean, should be very valued in that respect. (Even today, living in South Korea, Jang Jin-sung faces threats from North Korea because of his continued writing on the country. He created New Focus to write about North Korea from the perspective of North Koreans now living outside the country.) I highly recommend this book to everyone.

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