Episode 17: A Poet's Awakening

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

In this episode, we are shifting our focus to North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive Communist regimes.   We’ll be discussing the first part of “Dear Leader”, the memoir of Jang Jin-Sung, a poet who was one of the top propaganda poets serving Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, before he fled the country and eventually defected to South Korea.   This was a period of economic prosperity worldwide, though due to the failure of North Korea’s command economy, a time of major famine and shortages in North Korea.   As we’ll see, North Korea is also one of the worst examples of a “cult of personality” arising around a powerful leader, with Kim Jong il (and now his son Kim Jong Un) being worshipped like a god.

Jang was born in a small village, but by his teenage years his parents were important Communist officials, and his family was living in Pyongyang, the capital.   His family had the unusual luxury of a piano in the living room, so he was given music lessons from a young age, and sent to a high school focusing on music.   The plan was for him to embark on a career track as one of the regime’s court musicians, a nice, low-risk trajectory for a young member of the party elite.    But even as he studied this music, he started to suspect something wasn’t quite right about how music was developed in North Korea as compared to the West.

As time went on, I was confirmed in my conviction that Western music was artistically superior to the North Korean music I was being taught. It wasn’t that I preferred one set of stylistic rules to the other. Western music had its rules too; but what it had that North Korean music didn’t was the infinite possibilities of breaking an established rule, to make a new one of your own.

Jin-sung, Jang. Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (pp. 30-31). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 

However, Jang experienced a major shift in outlook after coming across a rare book of poetry by Lord Byron.   This book wasn’t widely available in North Korea, but was part of a small edition of only 100 copies, designated for distribution among the party elite.   Apparently the government assumed that this small group of people was already so loyal that they couldn’t be noticeably contaminated by foreign influences.   But in this case, that wasn’t quite correct.

Before encountering Byron’s poetry, I had thought that adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” were a special form of pronoun in the Korean language reserved for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. … I had assumed that these adjectives were names just like Kim and therefore … purely Korean. But I learnt, through Byron’s poetry, that these words were terms of respect that were part of a universal language and not uniquely Korean. I felt strangely elated by the discovery that these terms might be applied to an individual…. these poems were proof that emotions could be experienced in a personal sphere that did not include the Leader.


He decided that he now wanted to be a poet rather than a musician.   He heard that one of the regime’s top poets, Kim Sang-o, lived nearby, and through a common acquaintance managed to arrange a meeting with him.    He was worried at first that the independence of his poetry might anger the great poet, but it actually had the opposite effect:

When he had finished reading my attempt at an epic poem, he laughed heartily… To my astonishment, he did not scold me, but was accepting of it: “If you had come to me with something like, ‘Oh, my homeland! Oh, my Party!’ I would have refused to talk to you. I enjoyed your personal narrative of love. I can see that you’re faithful to your own voice.”

The great poet took Jang under his wing, and helped him further develop his poetic skills.   Later, on his deathbed, he left Jang an amazing parting gift.   High-ranking Communists were expected to write declarations of loyalty to the leader before they died, indicating that even in the afterlife they would continue to serve him.   But Sang-o added a note to his, that he had left behind unfinished work to be completed by his student— meaning Jang.   This brought Jang to the attention of the Party leadership, and enabled him to get a job at the UFD, or United Front Department, the main propaganda organization of the regime.   This was a stroke of luck, since it was only as a part of this or a similar department that he could actually be allowed to continue to write poetry.

Anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through …chain of command is by definition guilty of treason. All written works in North Korea must be initiated in response to a specific request from the Workers’ Party.….It is not the job of a writer to articulate new ideas or to experiment with aesthetics on his or her own whim…

The epic genre of Kim Jong-il poetry in particular was restricted to just six poets, who were also the poets laureate of North Korea. At the age of twenty-eight, in 1999, I became the youngest of this tiny elite of court poets.  

Ironically, this entry into the bowels of the regime’s propaganda machine was what enabled Jang to learn the truth about the outside world.  Because Kim Jong-Il wanted propaganda to be generated in the style of South Korean writing, to appear more authentic, the writers in the UFD had abundant access to otherwise forbidden literature.    Although Jang was continuing to write his personal non-propaganda-related poetry at home, he was grateful to have his job and privileges at the UFD, and composed the official, loyalist poetry that was required.   One of his poems in particular, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, led to yet another level of official recognition:

So this is the Gun 
that in the hands of an inferior man 
can only commit murder, 
but, when wielded by a great man, 
can overcome anything. 
As history has shown, 
war and carnage belong
to the weak. 
General Kim Jong-il, 
the General alone, 
is Lord of the Gun, 
Lord of Justice, 
Lord of Peace, 
Lord of Unification. 
Ah, the true Leader of the Korean people!

(pp 18-19)

This poem was distributed nationally, and led to an invitation for Jang to meet Kim Jong-il and become one of the “Admitted”.   An “Admitted” person was one who had spent at least 20 minutes in the actual presence of the great leader— once you had achieved this milestone, you had many special privileges, including extra rations, personal freedom, and immunity from arbitrary harassment by the secret police.   Jang describes his dinner with the leader, where he finally confirmed that Kim Jong-Il was merely human.

… I can see his feet under the tablecloth. He has taken off his shoes. Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet! I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet.
That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together. With this glorious invitation into his circle, I had thought I would enter and partake of a divine dimension in time. But here I am, looking into his shoes, which have high heels and an inner platform at least two and a half inches high. Those shoes have deceived his people.
(p. xxiv)

But the incident that definitively led Jang to break with the regime was when he visited his old village, during a vacation period after the success of his great poem.   He already knew that things were harder outside the capitol than in Pyongyang, but he had been very insulated from the lives of common people.   He even personally received large amounts of food aid that international charities had intended for the country’s starving population:

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. .. the resources we received—different each time—came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the UN and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean NGOs and religious organizations…  
The existence of such international aid was viewed as a shameful secret that the regime could not afford to reveal to its ordinary citizens at a time of widespread famine, as it would undermine the state’s ideology of “self-reliance.” But as our department’s role was to live and work as outsiders, it seemed logical that we should receive outside goods.


When Jang arrived at the village’s train station and walked through the market square, he was hit all at once with the extent of the suffering in the countryside.   Even the basic rations that were promised by Communism were no longer being provided, having been replaced by a campaign of “self-sufficiency” promoted by the government.   

I grimaced as I took in every sort of poverty known to North Korea’s provinces, gathered together here and put on display in this miserable plot. The stench of unwashed bodies in the air was rank. The wares optimistically placed on display by grimy hands were not the kind one would expect to pay for. I asked one woman why she was selling an empty insulated flask for twenty won. She replied by saying that if I filled it with hot water, I could hug it during the night to keep warm. It also bewildered me to see tap water on sale. It cost ten won to wash your face with soap and water and five to wash with water alone.

He was even more shocked when he saw some men removing dead bodies from the area.

“They’re from the Corpse Division,” he said. “Dispatched by the city’s party committee.” “Corpse Division? What do you mean?” “Why, they get rid of the corpses! Maybe you don’t have this in Pyongyang, but the committees in all the other provinces dispatch them to their main park near the station. All sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg, until they die.”   … “Apparently, the party secretary for Hamheung thought of the idea, and received a state medal for it. Good for him!”

While in the village, he stayed with the family of his childhood friend Young-nam.   He was even more distressed to see how his old friend lived now, compared to his own lifestyle.  

That night, at the dinner prepared by Young-nam’s mother, I had to choke back my tears again. She proudly explained how she was able to offer me, her guest, a half-full bowl of rice—she had stashed away ten grains of rice at every meal. … When I asked how long it had taken to save up the rice, she replied, “Three months.” I could not believe that they were eating rice by the grain, instead of in servings. I muttered an excuse, saying that I had indigestion after eating lunch on the train.

Realizing that he could not impose further on their hospitality, Jang cut his stay short the next day, after giving Young-nam’s family all the gifts he could.   Before leaving town, he wanted to go with Young-nam to the market to buy a few more things for him, but was in for another nasty surprise.    There was a loud siren, and everyone was suddenly herded by the police into the center of the market— forced witnesses to a public execution.   This was regarded as a form of moral education, so nobody was allowed to leave until the sentence was complete.

… an execution in the market? As I looked confusedly at Young-nam, he reassured me that these executions took place almost on a weekly basis. …  The People’s Trial was over in less than five minutes. It was not really a trial. A military officer merely read out his judgment. The prisoner’s crime was declared to be the theft of one sack of rice….

“Death by firing squad!” As soon as the judge pronounced his sentence, one of the two soldiers who was restraining the prisoner shoved something into his mouth in a swift, practiced motion. It was a V-shaped spring that expanded once it was put inside the mouth, preventing the prisoner from speaking intelligibly. … a prisoner could not utter rebellious sentiments in the final moments of his life before it was taken from him. Bang! Bang! Bang! I had never been so close to a gun being fired. The blood froze in my veins. Not daring to look at the prisoner at the moment of his death, I flicked my gaze upward….
The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer. Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.

AS SOON as I returned home to Pyongyang, far away from the People’s Trial in Sariwon, I got into the shower. It felt like bits of the prisoner’s skin and blood had been sprayed onto my skin, and I scrubbed myself again and again. For over a week, whenever I sat at the table to eat, I was overcome with nausea and could not bear the thought of food.

After this, Jang could no longer comfortably participate in the nation’s propaganda efforts, and it was only a matter of time until he fled the country.   The second half of the book covers his harrowing journey across the border and as a refugee in China, where the police pursue him for a murder charge trumped up by the North Korean authorities.   It’s a really exciting story that we don’t want to spoil here— check out the book and enjoy it for yourself!

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

And this has been your story of communism for today.