I think there are few who are unaware that North Korea is a nation that has been a blight on the earth due to its leadership and is a secretive nation. It is exactly because of this second reason however, that many do not know why it is so bad. This book is partly about this: why North Korea is such a nasty regime, but also it is a story of a man who escaped.
Jang Jin-Sung was a high ranking member of the North Korean elite. He began life very poor in North Korea, living the rural areas outside of Pyongyang. As he grew, the most precious possession he owned was a piano given to his family by Japanese immigrants. He developed a gift for piano playing and went to the Pyongyang School for the Arts where he finished his degree in music. Around this same time, he developed a love for literature, particularly poetry. So when he eventually got his job at the propaganda department in Pyongyang, he was a poet and a rising star. His claim to fame was a poem that Kim Jong-Il himself loved and invited Jang out to dine with him. It was here that Jang discovered that not all is as it seems. Kim Jong-Il was revered in North Korea as the supreme leader, and therefore it was a criminal offense to speak ill of him (pun intended) or the North Korean government. Punishments for this sort of thing would be considered high treason and would land you at the end of the barrel of a gun. Yet, not many were able to see and converse with him, so the picture the people had was idyllic and probably not a good representation of who he really was. For example, during the dinner, Jang saw Kim Jong-Il cry. This is was so controversial because it was said that Kim Jong-Il only cried once: when they laid his father to rest after he passed away.
This is the story of North Korea: propaganda and a half-truth caricature. Jang’s job was to construct poetry from a South Korean perspective that cast a negative light on South Korea. He was allowed to read books, magazines, and newspapers that were otherwise forbidden in North Korea. This is in part why he had to defect from North Korea. His friend, Young Min, illegally borrowed one of the books Jang was allowed to read and left his bag with the book on the train. After finding it missing, the government began to take Jang into questioning. Before they could get very far, both Jang and Young Min left, using their party status as a way to get to the Chinese border. From here, they crossed the border and were aided by a farmer. Jang then details a harrowing account of how he finally made it to South Korea. It was not an easy journey.
This book was hard to put down. Between the narrative of the account of Jang’s defection, North Korean life is intermixed. You get a picture of not only what North Korea is like, but how corrupt their government is. One section of the book, Young Min and Jang are at a Chinese couple’s house who entertain other North Korean refugees: women. These women, after they cross the border into China, are scooped up by the Chinese and sent into a life of prostitution. Jang laments that the “dear leader” doesn’t really care about North Koreans, as he not only does not want people to get out of North Korea but he is unwilling to help those who are already gone. Further, you get a sense of the poverty and the starvation. The sanctions that went on in North Korea around the time Jang is writing from crippled the North Korean economy and left many thousands dead from starvation. This bleak picture is a grotesque account of the horrible tragedy of North Korean.
Pick up this book if you want to hear a good story. But be wary: the sickening images of the travesty of the North Korean government will, at times, leave you sick to your stomach. The worst part of this book was when Jang sought refuge in a South Korean Church. He was turned away fiercely and almost left to die of starvation in the cold Chinese winter. That kind of behavior is perhaps some of the most stomach wrenching moments of the entire book. Jang is obviously an incredibly talented writer. I felt as if I was reading a book full of his poetry rather than an autobiography. Let me leave you with a quote, one of his actual poems:
‘The most delicious thing in the world.
“Three months ago, my brother said, the most delicious thing in the world was a warm corncob. Two months ago, my brother said, the most delicious thing in the world was a roasted grasshopper. One month ago, the most delicious thing in the world was the dream he ate last night. If my brother were alive today, what would he say this month, and next, was the most delicious thing in the world?”