Book Review: Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee– A Look Inside North Korea

Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee– A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-sung provides an inside look into the North Korea. Jang served as one of the eight poet laureates of North Korea under Kim Jong-Il. Among those duties was the work on theAnnals of the Kim Dynasty, where Jang notes, was written by writers and poets and not historians. As part of the protected, privileged, inner circle Jang did not experience the extreme poverty personally, but did encounter it on his trip back to his hometown. Jang’s inside experience makes Dear Leader the Breaking with Moscow of the early twenty-first century. 

Most of what happens in North Korea, stays in North Korea. With only twenty-four embassies, there is little intelligence gathering throughout the country. The people have limited access to the media, all of it state owned. North Korea, poor, but with a government capable of monitoring daily lives and activities of it citizens. What it cannot monitor it enforces by threat. Prison camps and sentences for entire families (three generations) are not out of the norm and can be imposed for seemingly minor offences. Jang’s offence was losing a Western book he loaned to a friend. That carried the death penalty. 

Jang manages to escape with the friend he loaned the book to and is better prepared to defect than most North Koreans. Once out of North Korea and in China they find that the previous privilege has no benefit in trying to get to South Korea or South Korean help. Throughout his escape he tells those who help him stories of what he witnessed and experienced in North Korea. The main problem he has getting to the right people. China does not want North Korean refugees, but turns a blind eye to importing women to be wive’s of Chinese men. But ordinary North Koreans are seen as a threat to legal Korean communities in China. There is also an interesting experience with Chinese Christian organizations and churches — which were instrumental in helping latin American refugees in the 1980s. 

I have read several books on North Korea and was a bit skeptical about this one. Several defectors have told stories of tremendous hardship and cruelty at the hands of the government or simply of government neglect when the times became difficult. It is with these experiences that people are able to make their case for asylum. South Korea accepts all defectors but the most practical way to escape is through China and then on to the South Korean embassy in Mongolia. Chinese guards the entrance to the South Korean Embassy checking passport of those trying enter. Jang does not disclose how he was able to enter the South Korean compound, but a careful reader or a person familiar with international law will easily figure it out. 

All in all a great book and a great story. I did have a difficult time, at first, feeling any sympathy for a man in the inner circle of North Korean power who probably would have remained in his privileged position had his friend not lost a book. Jang, however, does come across as an honest person and sincere in his writing. A very good read about a country little real information is known about. 

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