Jang Jin-Sung’s* memoir of his time in and flight from North Korea is a valuable and urgent glimpse into the secret state around the turn of the millenium. It shines a light on the plight of North Koreans within North Korea, and as refugees living under the threat of forced repatriation in China. Most interestingly, in my opinion, it provides a glimpse into the daily lives of North Koreans through the eyes of a man who was a true loyalist to the Supreme Leader or “General”, Kim Jong-il.
Jang Jin-Sung is a poet, so his memoir is well-written. There is poetry scattered in the text, both literally and within the prose itself, in his descriptions of Pyongyang, the countryside and people. In the sections devoted to Jang’s time in North Korea, the memoir evokes a sense of the country’s cultural isolation; Jang’s curiosity about the outside world; and his growing deadly doubts, spurred in the moment he meets Kim Jong-Il and realises the man is, after all, a human being. As a worker in a government division dedicated to creating artificial South Korean literature and so draw sympathy for North Korea, Jang has an unsual level of access to South Korean media. This makes his life dangerous.
Much of the book deals with Jang’s escape from North Korea, after he “borrows” a forbidden South Korean document which goes missing. Protected by his political status, Jang has the time and the means to make an emergency escape from the country. Once over the border with his friend Young-min**, though, Jang faces the challenge of reaching South Korea, as well as daily survival. Since their escape was largely unplanned, the pair have not been able to arrange for a broker to help them across the borders, and because of their status they are hunted with rather more vigour than usual by North Korean and Chinese authorities.
Throughout the memoir there are assorted diversions discussing, for example, Kim Jong-Il’s devious machinations to wrest power from his father; the consequences of the catastrophic famine and rise of black and grey markets in North Korea; the negotiation tactics employed by North Korea in dealing with the US, South Korea and Japan. It is an excellent look behind the façade of the seemingly irrational state and provides hints at potential new tacts for negotiation. While the famine was dire and at the time he left, North Korea still struggled to recover, Jang also notes that life has improved in the country since then.
Several North Korean defectors have come under criticism lately for exaggerating their accounts, not only of the horrors of daily life, but also of the difficulties of escape. As I have not lived in North Korea myself, and obviously don’t know the reality of life as a refugee in China, I’m not willing to speculate on whether this book has exaggerated some aspects. There is much that might be shocking and I am willing to believe it. What I found occasionally unbelievable was the halo of luck that seemed to surround Jang throughout his escape. But whether this is because he has been forced to gloss over some parts of his journey, or because he decided to ramp up the tension in places, or simply because he really is just insanely lucky, is hard to say.
I would also like to know about the mundaneities of North Korean life. Having, as my previous review indicates, recently finished Alain de Botton’s The News, I think the book could benefit from describing things like how the average day is spent in North Korea; what people do after work or on days off; what people do for fun. Of course the answer is likely to be “pretty much what I do, except cheaper”, but it would be good to know for sure. I don’t know whether Jang felt such an addition was unnecessary or boring, or whether exposing mundaneity in such an extraordinary place is frowned upon by South Korean publishers. Either way, this has me questioning.
This is a very interesting and exceptionally well-written memoir of a North Korean defector. If you’re curious, definitely give it a go.
*Jang Jin-Sung is a pseudonym.
**I would guess that Young-min’s name is also a pseudonym, to protect his family remaining in North Korea.