By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Jang Jin-sung
Narration by: Daniel York
Though “Dear Leader” is a somewhat implausible story of a defector’s escape from North Korea, it offers insight to a repressive dictatorship that uncaringly victimizes its population. Jang Jin-sung, a pseudonym for a highly privileged cultural official, formerly participated in North Korea’s propaganda department, and then defected. Jang Jin-sung’s department composed lies about the benevolence of North Korean leadership, the dire straits of the nation’s economy, and truth about its starving citizens.
After listening to Jang’s book, one suspects this cultural official’s defection is only partly related to his anguish over treatment of the majority of North Korea’s less privileged citizens. Jang Jin-sung’s imminent arrest seems the more plausible reason for his defection.
Most of Jang Jin-sung’s book is about his escape. He crosses the border into China with a friend, an equally high-ranking North Korean official. This friend kills himself because of capture by Chinese soldiers and China’s intent to return him to North Korea. But, Jang Jin-sung manages to reach Beijing with the help of a Chinese-Korean restaurant owner, a newspaper reporter, and a helpful North Korean woman (met by chance). Many parts of the story seem contrived. They may be based on fear of either North Korean or Chinese reprisal against those who helped, or a literary license taken by a highly accomplished propagandist.
Whatever the factual truth of the escape, Jang Jin-sung reveals a fascinating picture of North Korean leadership, the plight of North Korean citizens, and the resistance of relatively free nations in helping refugees. North Korea is fundamentally led by a cadre of elite government officials identified as members of the OGD (The Organization and Guidance Department). Kim Jong-un (the present leader of North Korea) and his predecessors, Kim Jon-il and Kim Il-sung are puppets of the OGD, according to the author.
The OGD is a factional organization with competing interests held together by a common desire for power. In Jang Jin-sung’s opinion, factional infighting of the OGD is weakening its control of North Korea. In one sense, this opinion offers some hope for North Korea’s future; in another, it bodes potential for chaos. If one faction grows strong enough to take control of North Korea, the consequence is unpredictable; i.e. either better or worse for its people and/or the world. If OGD disintegrates, no one is in control of a nation capable of selling or using nuclear weapons.
The surprise is that only in the early years of Kim Il-sung’s leadership was North Korea led by one person. Later, North Korea became an ideological oligarchy, bypassing Kim Il-sung’s leadership. The OGD subtlety undermines Kim’s power by raising his profile to that of a demigod who became shielded from the bureaucracy of government. The instigator of that controlling ideological oligarchy is Kim Jon-il, who covets Kim Il-sung’s position. By praising and putting Dear Leader on a pedestal, the OGD oligarchy usurps his power. Kim Il-sung becomes a puppet, a figure-head, for the OGD. Once that oligarchic bureaucracy is in place, even Kim Jon-il became subject to its power.
Jang Jin-sung’s stories of mothers selling their children for money to buy food, childhood friends starving, and oligarchic elites use of luxuries are heart-rending reminders of North Korean inequality. Jang Jing-sung explains that part of his job is to write paeans to the Dear Leader. Later in his North Korean career, he is assigned to write articles that appear to come from South Korea, implying North Korea is a paradise.
Jang Jin-sung’s success in propaganda creation leads to a promotion. He is assigned to create a story of the heroic ascension of Kim Il-sung. As Jang Jin-sung researches the Dear Leader’s background, he finds an uncultured, ignorant North Korean rather than a demigod. A listener feels somewhat manipulated by Jang Jing-sung’s characterization of Kim Il-sung because of America’s own demonization of Dear Leader. After all, America fought a stalemated war in an attempt to depose Kim Il-sung. Ironically, South Korea’s leadership during that war is not considered by many as any better than Kim Il-sung’s.
Finally, one is struck by the refugee issues noted in Jang Jin-sung’s story. The plight of refugees resonate today with the flight of Syrian and other Middle Easterners to less repressive countries. China, like many European and Western nations today, did not help Jang Jin-sung when he fled North Korea. Jang was reviled and spat upon by some Chinese Koreans because his defection made their lives more difficult.
Jang notes that human traffickers prey on North Korean women by stealing their money; pimping and then selling them to the highest bidder. Today, Europeans are cutting deals to return refugees to their home countries. Many Americans believe in building walls to stop impoverished emigrants who are looking to improve their lives. It appears Far Easterners, South Americans, Middle Easterners, Africans; et al. are just refugees, not real human beings.
Jang Jin-sung’s truth and fiction shame North Korea and the rest of the world.