It is universally acknowledged that good friendships are built on trust. But in North Korea, this is taken to the extreme. The sign of a true friendship, in the somewhat ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is if you can criticise the Supreme Leader in the company of another, and not end up in front of a firing squad.
While audience members at Chatswood Library squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, aghast and disturbed by candid revelations about the world’s most secretive country, Jang Jin-Sung, author of the much-anticipated expose, Dear Leader, chuckled to himself at times as he recounted the nuances of life under the totalitarian regime.
Jang Jin-Sung is a North Korean defector, but it was his intimate dealings with Kim Jong-Il, Supreme Leader during a decade of famine and mass executions, that made his talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival even more intriguing.
In the 1990s, Jang worked his way through Party ranks as a writer and propagandist, and eventually earned the respect of Kim Jong-Il, lauded by the dictator as one of his favourite poets. Jang was given the ultimate state honour of a personal meeting with Kim Jong-Il – a day that changed his future.
“When I met him, the façade collapsed before my eyes. I thought, he’s a mortal, he’s not a God!” Jang recounted. “In the West, you might grow up believing in God, but in North Korea you grow up believing in the Supreme Leader.”
After this meeting, the unnerving yet growing sensation that he had been brainwashed by indoctrination reached tipping point. Jang’s position in the United Front Department required him to monitor literature and news publications coming out of South Korea. This opened his eyes to a history of the Korean peninsula that seemed entirely at odds with what he had learnt as a student. But it was the moment when he realised he was responsible for perpetuating the lies that he remembers most vividly.
“I realised I was implicated. I read the fabrications, the fabricated history of North Korea. And I realised it was fabricated by propagandists like me.”
In a dangerous move, he loaned a South Korean book to a friend who was not a member of the propaganda department.
“The punishment for distributing South Korean literature is death,” Jang explained. “My friend left the book on a train by accident, and then I knew that I had to leave North Korea.”
Jang fled by crossing the frozen Tumen River into Chinese territory in 2004.
In China, he spent weeks on the run from North Korean spies, seeking refuge in strangers’ homes and begging them to keep his identity a secret.
“The kindness of strangers made it possible for me to survive. These chance encounters saved my life,” he said. His book, Dear Leader, grew out of a blog dedicated to finding one of these strangers, a Chinese woman named Cho-Rin, for whom he is still searching to this day.
Jang made it to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing and eventually to South Korea, where he was struck by the sense of freedom.
“I saw a big group of people on the street late one night and I assumed they were migrating to the countryside,” he said. It turns out it was just an ordinary Saturday night in Seoul’s nightclub district.
And state-funded support for the elderly and disabled had him even more baffled. “I had never seen a disabled ramp. In Pyongyang, they banish disabled people to the rural areas.”
Jang has spent the past ten years in South Korea using his knowledge of the intricacies of the North’s regime to build a groundswell of resistance. Following the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, his son, Kim Jong-Un took his place. In 2012, Jang founded the first non-state-controlled North Korean newspaper, New Focus International, an online publication written by defectors and those with inside knowledge of the regime.
“My purpose with the newspaper and my book is to tell the truth about North Korea,” he said. “There are two North Koreas – one that has been constructed for the outside world, which the West continues to engage with, and the real one.”
Coming as a surprise to the audience, Jang asserted the need for the West to ignore North Korea’s provocations, and to stop bargaining for peace.
“We should continue to offer aid and money, but not in return for peace,” he said. “North Korea has nothing left to bargain with except peace. They create provocations so they can then return to an artificial peace after the West offers them a reward.”
Jang has pinned his hopes on the ordinary citizens of North Korea to destabilise the regime from the ground-up. And it seems there is a whiff of recalcitrance in the heavily polluted Pyongyang air.
“The real Supreme Leader of North Korea is now the American president on a dollar bill,” he said. The foundations of the ruling Worker’s Party are being gradually chipped away by a black market, fuelled by US dollars (a large proportion counterfeited) and cheap Chinese-made goods.
“Loyalty got you everything in the past,” Jang explained, referring to rewards given to those who reported on friends, loved-ones and colleagues. “But now the state can’t guarantee you a good life, it’s the black market that’s important, and whoever hears the day’s exchange rates first on their illegal radio will get ahead.”
Despite recent death threats from the North Korean government, Jang said he will continue to “tell the truth” about the regime that allowed three million to starve to death and continues to subject thousands more to physical and psychological torture inside prison camps.
Jang’s thank-you gift from the Sydney Writers’ Festival was a framed picture of Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak. It was Dvorak’s music, heard as a youth, long before his introduction to illegal South Korean literature, that opened Jang’s mind to the possibility of freedom of expression.
“I was exposed to the thrilling world of harmonic possibility, so different from North Korean songs, which don’t allow for any suggestions of musical imperfection or dissonance,” the festival host read to the audience, quoting from an earlier interview. As Jang’s interpreter whispered his own words back to him, he smiled and nodded slowly, his expression a mix of painful memories and guarded hope for the future.