Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung
Those interested in learning more about the recent history of North Korea from an inside perspective, set against the suspense of someone seeking asylum.
In a nutshell:
Jang Jin-Sung rose high within the North Korean ruling class as a poet, but eventually fled the country.
A lot, but I listened while running so didn’t have a chance to take note.
Why I chose it:
I stumbled across Michael Palin’s show about his visit to North Korea (https://www.natgeotv.com/me/michael-palin-in-north-korea/videos/michael-palin-in-north-korea) and realized I know next to nothing about life in North Korea.
This is an interesting book.
The book opens with a description of Jang being summoned for an audience with Kim Jong-Il, and just that is enough to realize we are not operating in a realm of what we would consider normality. The phone call comes in the middle of the night with no information other than a place to meet by 1AM. Jang is then driven with others in circles before boarding a train at a private railway station, being instructed to sleep for the two hour ride, then boarding a boat to an island, where the meet with Kim’s … dog. And Kim as well.
From there, the description of North Korea grows. At times it matches the very little I know about North Korea – the hunger, the inability to choose one’s own career – but also it fascinates me. There was an entire department of people who were allowed to view South Korean popular culture (books, poems, newspapers) so they could take on the voice of a South Korean, write books and poems praising North Korea, then distributing it through illegal means within South Korea as a form of propaganda.
Jang is relatively lucky from a young age – he is accepted to a performing arts school for music, but eventually is tutored by a famous poet and wins an award from the leader that includes, essentially a favor. Jang asks that he be allowed to pursue a career in writing instead of the required musical performance / composing career that his education would insist. The leader decrees it, and so Jang becomes a writer. And a very successful one, considering that meeting with Kim Jong-Il described up top happened when he was in his late 20s.
Due to sharing some of the South Korea materials with a friend, and the friend then losing those materials, Jang and his friend decide to run. We know, given he is writing this book, that Jang is ultimately successful, but the how — and the uncertainty around his friend — remains. The experience Jang shares is utterly harrowing. In some ways, he is very lucky in the people he encounters, but others either ignore him outright or actively threaten him with a promise to report him to the authorities.
Interspersed within what could work solely as an escape book is a description of North Korea, including Kim Jong-Il’s taking power from his father, the extreme poverty and danger in the provinces; and the challenges of everyday life in North Korea. He shares one story of returning to visit his home after living in Pyongyang for many years and discovering it changed, including so many laws and rules that, if broken, result in a quick public ‘trial’ and immediate execution.
Obviously one cannot learn all about one country from just one memoir, but this one was engrossing, fascinating, and heartbreaking.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it (audiobook)