Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee - A Look Inside North Korea -- A book review

Amazingly, about 26,000 North Koreans have escaped in the last 15 years - over its closely guarded borders, through its one international airport, etc. North Korea is a horrible country, and I generally no longer enjoy reading about it because of how it treats its people. 'Dear Leader,' however, conveys that same message in a much more palatable manner, from an insider.

The story begins with author Jang Jin-Sung being woken shortly after midnight by a summons to work at 1 A.M. En route he's a bit fearful because such calls are often associated with preparation for war or being imprisoned or even executed. Jang, however, has reason to be optimistic, per a comment recently made by his supervisor. Arriving at work, he's told to stand with 6 others - all far more senior to him. They're then taken on a two-hour ride with the windows blacked out in the van - sort of pointless, because he recognizes the destination as a train station only 30 minutes outside Pyongyang that could have been reached in about a half-hour. It's a train station that's reserved for the 'Dear Leader' and others associated with the highest levels. After several security checks, they're led into a specially marked train - made in Japan but marked to look like it was made in China. Why - probably to make foreign aircraft/spies not realize it is used to carry top level functionaries. Several hours later, they stop at Lolma, another 'First Class station that does not serve ordinary North Koreans. Then it's another van trip, and finally onto a special high-speed boat that takes them to an island.

Turns out the boat is not owned/operated by the North Korean Navy, but by the 'Guards Command,' a 100,000 or so special group charged with protecting the Dear Leader's household. It's comprised of infantrymen, seamen, and pilots. There are also 3,000 researchers who work at the Foundational Sciences Institute planning and preparing medicines and food designed to extend Dear Leader's life - they're tested on those that share his illnesses and physique. The seven are then seated in a room that Jang estimates is 3/5 mile square. Four hours later, the Great Leader' appears - just after his seat has been sprayed with a disinfectant.

When Jang approaches Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il (he'd been toasted for writing a poem about Kim that the Dear Leader admired, and was given the glass as a keepsake), he notices that Kim wears platform shoes and is losing hair - contrary to the bigger-than-life manner he's depicted to the masses. Another surprise - Kim speaks crudely and disrespectfully, not how he's depicted in film clips and movies.

Anyone composing a written work not assigned via the Writer's Union Central Committee of the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department in N.K. is automatically guilty of treason. Materials also must then be approved by that group. Petry replaced memoirs/novels after Kim Il-Sung's death - partly because of a shortage of paper, and also because Kim Jon-Il prefers poetry. Epic poets (6, in N.K.) write long poems, lyric poets write shorter ones and per the Workers' Party designation are of lower status. Author Jang was the youngest of the more elite group; he also had another job that afforded access to state secrets and newspapers/books published in S.K. During this 'day job,' he and 7 others are tasked with writing psyops material directed at S.K. in the style of and attributed to South Koreans.

Passenger trains have the lowest priority in N.K., 'Dear Leader' trains the highest; freight trains are often months behind (that boggles my mind). Jang takes a train to Sariwon (his home town) to visit friends - it's 39 miles away, and the departure is delayed three hours. Travel requires an official pass - those caught without one are sent off for 3 months hard labor. Many instead travel on the roof of the cars to avoid being checked.

Arriving at his home town (vacation and trip were a reward for the Dear Leader liking his poem), Jang sees that life outside Pyongyang is far worse than in the capital. (Pyongyang is North Korea's showcase.) He sees comforters for sale on the street that are stuffed with cigarette butts, old friends/acquaintances who are now haggard/thin, the 'Corpse Division' (given daily rations for checking (eg. poke now and then) the dying beggars at the train station, and removing those who have, realizes that most of the people stink (haven't washed - washing one's face with soap and water costs 10 won, with water only is 5 won). Those he's visiting ask how the General is doing - despite their desperate poverty; the mother has saved 10 grains of rice/meal for three months and is thereby able to offer him a half bowl of rice. On average, there's a public execution each week - mandatory viewing by all present at the time and considered part of 'moral education.' The day he was there a farmer (unable to feed even himself) is executed for stealing a sack of rice. Wasting electricity (usually off in the rural areas, only on about half the time in Pyongyang), hoarding food, disobeying traffic rules, spreading foreign culture, gossiping - all banned, backed by possible execution for such.

Back at his Pyongyang job, we learn that Jang's favorite time is just after lunch - while his fellow office-mates take an outside break he's able to hold blackened out (censored) portions of newspapers etc. up to the window and read them in their entirety. Jang then makes the major mistake of removing a foreign book from the Top Secret library and then loaning it to a friend who then mistakenly leaves it on the train. (The book was written by a South Korean academic and discusses the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family - contrary to the official 'Revolutionary history.' Jang knows the secret police will soon confront them both, and they resolve to escape. Step one - obtaining a 'Special Pass' for $100 (normally $200) from a friend; Jang is paid only $2/month - fortunately has a rich relative who markets N.K. weapons around the globe - thus, Jang usually has about $1,000 in his billfold. They take the train for a 288 mile trip to a location near the border with China - took four days (some riders remarked that their last trip on that train took ten days). They then walk 18 miles to the Tumen River - 200' feet to China, covered in ice. After being stopped several times and nearly exposed, they take the risk of running across in broad daylight, and make it.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the details of how Jang eventually made it to South Korea via the South Korean embassy in Beijing - an ordeal that required 35 days. Close calls, freezing nights, and near starvation en route abound. North Korean refugees are shunned in China because of the government attention they generate - China does not want to be inundated by refugees. Jang now creates psy-op materials in South Korea directed at North Korea.Leader