Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-Sung, translated by Shirley Lee
While the majority of the nonfiction books about North Korea have focused on the extreme deprivation and unbearable suffering of the common citizen – for example, labor camps and slave children born to prisoners in Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, numerous “ordinary lives” in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy – Dear Leader is one of few titles that exposes the highest echelons of the North Korean regime.
Jang Jin-Sung wasn’t starving, he was never sent to a labor camp, his family was comparatively safe. He had regular access to some of the finest imported foods, he lived comfortably with his parents, he was a lauded Poet Laureate, and he was one of the “Admitted” – a small circle of the country’s most elite as recognized personally by the Great Leader Kim Jong-il.
In spite of his lofty status, Jang becomes increasingly aware of the failings of the Dear Leader and his sycophantic followers. Summoned for a middle-of-the-night feast to meet Kim Jong-il, Jang sees before him a crass, vain little man who bears no resemblance to the deified images Jang grew up believing most of his life. In spite of Jang’s comfortable existence in Pyongyang, he confirms with his own eyes the rumors of mass starvation when he returns to his family’s hometown and recognizes unburied skeletal corpses, witnesses an execution, and is utterly shattered by a mother trying to sell her young daughter for 100 won – mere pennies – in a desperate attempt to save the child’s life. His powerful job at the United Front Department gives him unprecedented access to the world outside and within … while he researches life beyond his hermetic country, he’s also is privy to inhumane government plots, from international kidnappings to the “Seed-Bearing Strategy” to create foreign-looking spies, to bloody internal purgings, to the manipulations and machinations of Kim Jong-il against his own father, Kim Il-Sung.
What finally threatens Jang’s very life, however, comes down to a book – an illegal, foreign book he shares with a trusted friend, that gets lost, then found. Facing unfathomable punishment, the two friends flee to the Chinese border, beginning a terrifying odyssey that finally ends in freedom … at least for one.
If you choose to go audible, Chinese British hapa actor Daniel York might not be a Korean speaker, but he makes up for his pronunciation gaffes by turning Jang’s memoir into a riveting thrill-ride teetering on devastation and hope. If you’re even considering wasting time on the recent not-worth-the-overblown-hubbub film, The Interview, Dear Leader is a far superior option. If you’ve already lost two hours to the screen, you can reclaim your brain – not to mention invest in inspiring humanity – by reading, listening, witnessing Dear Leader.