When I picked up Escape from Camp 14 and Nothing to Envy last year, I began my education on the life and times of unknown people living in North Korea who escaped to South Korea. Their lives were intriguing, better than the documentaries I watched before. These two books were personal accounts of people from all walks of North Korean society. A political prisoner, a poor family, an affluent family, and many more in-between, these people had stories to tell of a country that is enigmatic and at the same time terrifying. Last Christmas, my sister gave me another book to my growing collection, Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung, this time the life and times of a former North Korean intelligence agent.
Dear Leader is different from the first two books I got, the first two were stories of ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Their stories were graphically detailed, from their unbelievable lives, their mental and physical torture, and their death-defying escape, these read like the documentaries I used to watch. But Jang Jin Sung’s story is different, born into the upper classes of North Korean society, he is one of the North Korean party’s cadres. He is inside the system, working for it, and from time to time, rubbing elbows with the “dear leader”. Jang’s story is the first one that shows how the inner political machinery of North Korea works.
When I would read these stories, I would always see how survivors deified and honored Kim Jong-il and his father, Kim il-sung. But Dear Leader brings us up close and personal with Jang’s recollections of the times he was in close proximity to Kim Jong-il. He sees not a god but a mortal man who has murdered and killed his way to the top of North Korean society. Jang did not see North Korea through the propaganda and the brainwashing, he was the very instrument in charge of doing all of that, all in the name of the Kim family. As an intelligence officer, he is in a position to reveal a lot to his readers, and he certainly does give out a lot of information. It is not sanitized or changed, word per word comes from North Korean history that have been diluted with misinformation and revisionism.
In the end, Dear Leader, is another book and another avenue for readers curious to know and learn more about North Korea. The stories inside each of the books are a trove of information. Despite its interesting and fascinating topic, these books are also terrifying and depressing at the same time. Oftentimes I would stop and think about how such a country could possibly exist, how a government could continue functioning, and how its leaders or its people could possibly sleep at night. These are truly powerful stories that raises a lot of questions.