One of the more haunting moments in author Adam Johnson‘s interview with Charlie Rose is when he describes the impossibility of the plight of North Koreans – these are “people who have never seen a stop light before; they don’t know how many works,” says the author of the acclaimed Orphan Master’s Son. As he has pointed out elsewhere, most of the stories we have are from the areas outside the capital. The citizens of Pyongyang have already “made it.” So what is life like among North Korea’s upper classes?
“The cadres of the past had very traditional mentalities. They are people who lived thinking, “Anything for the party and the General…” The cadres, with the change in generations, started to think about their security. Corruption and self-interest stemmed from that.
In actuality, the North Korean cadres are the first ones to have changed internally. On the outside, they maintain their security by serving the regime, but internally, they will be the first ones to abandon it if the circumstances permit.”
These are the observations of Kim Jong Il‘s favorite state poet, Jang Jin Sung, who defected in 2004. He will be attending an international poetry festival during the upcoming London Olympics, from July 27 to Aug. 12 (Kay Ryan will also attend). The man who once wrote official poetry for the Workers’ Party newspaper now writes about executions, hunger, and desperate lives, according to an Associated Press article. In a Daily NK interview four years ago, he said:
North Korea is a country which allowed 3 million people to die during a peacetime period. The fact that the administration still exists is a shameful thing. North Korea is a country which calls the period which produced 3,000,000 starvation victims the “March of Tribulation.” If Hitler was a despot who massacred foreign citizens, Kim Jong Il is a despot who has slaughtered his own people. If this truth is not made known, we cannot find justice.
Jang said he led a privileged life in Pyongyang and once dined with Kim. He was instructed to avoid looking into the leader’s eyes and instead to stare at his second shirt button. After more contact with Kim, Jang said he soon stopped believing that he was “this godlike leader of this wonderful country.”
He said that poets had a special role to play in the regime: ”Because of the paper shortage in North Korea, poems were the most efficient, economical way to spread propaganda,” he said.
While working in the propaganda ministry, he was able to read South Korean books. He crossed the river to China. Although he was hunted by the North Korea, South Korea found him first (needless to say, he now works under an assumed name). He worked for the South Korean intelligence for seven years before setting up his own online newspaper about North Korea earlier this year. Now he says “Truth is the strongest weapon.”
A few of the poet’s poems are shown in the video below – but only in Korean. The soundtrack has a lovely rendition of Handel‘s immortal cry for liberty, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga,” sung by South Korean singer Jung Se Hoon. Lovely, that is, till the end – I don’t know why they felt the need to junk up the orchestration at the end. (Go here for Cecilia Bartoli‘s interpretation.)