Monday, July 21, 2014

"Dear Leader" by Jang Jin-Sung (2014)

Through his writing and poetry, Jang Jin-Sung became a member of the inner member of the Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The author explains the role he played in the constant program of propaganda that has come to define North Korea; where it is not legal to write anything unless it is state sanctioned. That includes diaries and even something as innocuous as this blog.

Writing is controlled by a central agency which assigns the subjects to be written about. Mr. Jin-Sung was good at his craft and reaped much reward for his efforts, believing that he was a perfect example of the promise of a "perfect" system of government. After all, this is what he had been told and all he had ever seen.

The author explains why poetry is often the preferred way of distributing the party line; a la Mao’s “Little Red Book.” The simple answer is economic; as there is not enough paper and ink. It is also cultural in that it is so much easier to present a bad argument as art rather than simply try and impose a new set of rules. When people think that what they are doing has cultural merit they seem to go along easier. Think of the Jews and the calming effect which classical music had upon them as they were herded into the gas chambers.

His life at the top in one of the world’s most secretive nations; as well as his subsequent decision to escape; will have you turning the next page, all the while thinking “I’ll read just one more…” A trip outside of Pyongyang opens his eyes to the truth about the leader he is serving, triggering a crisis of conscious which affects him to such a degree that he is moved to plan his escape.

But how do you escape such a repressive regime? Where do you turn to find the kindred spirits to assist you when everyone is too afraid to speak openly? And, lastly, how do you get the money and food to travel? These are the most fascinating elements of the book. The human spirit is something which lives on within even the most repressive of situations. The stories of the Holocaust and the small acts of kindness; even in the midst of genocide; inform who we really are inside. And the author has to rely on that unique trait being present in his countrymen as he makes good on his plans.

While it is true that his past life as a propaganda artist may leave you feeling a bit unsympathetic towards Mr. Jin-Sung, in some respects I could not help recall the plight of the “wikileaks” guy, Assange; as well as the NSA whistle blower Anthony Snowden. In spite of the differences in their professions, the status of the 3 men as traitors versus heroes all depends upon which side of the divide you happen to be standing. This is a very informative book. 

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