Posts Tagged ‘Kim Jong Il’

“Truth is the strongest weapon,” says N. Korean poet Jang Jin Sung

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

(Photo: Martin Alexander)

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.)

Telling North Korea’s stories: Adam Johnson on this month’s rocket launch and the “biggest party evah”

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012


Author, author! (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I chatted with Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, on March 25 at his home in the tiny, charming San Francisco neighborhood of Cole Valley – at that time, North Korea’s plans to put a satellite in orbit this month were already much in the news.  (It wasn’t my first get-together with the author: I wrote about him earlier here.)  A few days later, on a very soggy weekday in San Francisco, he spoke more about North Korea at a Litquake event in the North Beach bar, Tosca – a surprising number of people came for the event, despite the downpour.  (Publishers Weekly wrote about that gathering here.)

Here’s the article that came out of our most recent rendezvous:

In a nation of lies, sometimes only fiction tells the truth.

So Adam Johnson‘s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, already a New York Times bestseller, may offer new insights about North Korea, the country he says is too often dismissed as a mélange of “buffoonery, madness or evil.”

With the launch of a long-range rocket scheduled around April 15, the world is turning its eyes again on North Korea. An outraged world clamors to know what can be done to contain a dangerous pariah state.

Johnson’s prediction? “They’re going to send up a big-ass rocket and whatever happens, the North Koreans will call it a startling success.”

“It’s not about science,” the Stanford associate professor of English explained. “It’s about the consolidation of power so Kim Jong Un doesn’t get murdered in the night.” Johnson suggests we look to the country’s new leader, the third generation in a totalitarian dynasty, to explain the newest flare-up of celestial ambitions.

“In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message.”

A young soldier eyes the tourists near the DMZ (Photo: Adam Johnson)

Johnson’s novel, published by Random House, traces the career of Pak Jun Do, a homonym for “John Doe,” the son of a kidnapped singer and a man who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. He becomes a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, the “demilitarized” zone between North and South Korea. He’s a professional kidnapper, a surveillance officer and eventually a player in the circles closest to the nation’s leader. The book is part romance, part adventure story, part spy novel and mostly the dark, absurdist drama for which Johnson is celebrated – though the parts that sound like comic-book excess often hew closest to the truth.

But is it over the top? Vindication came from award-winning author and Korea expert Barbara Demick, who read a published excerpt from the book last year and wrote in The Guardian: “I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details . . . Johnson has made just one trip in his life to North Korea, but he’s managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read.”

The Orphan Master’s Son was published a month after the December death of the longtime dictator, Kim Jong Il, an event that heightened interest in the book.

“With the passing of Kim Jong Il, we’ve had the first serious discussion of the place in a long time,” said Johnson.

“North Korea is the most extensive national psychological experiment ever created. What is this place? Is it really this crazy? What’s its future?”

The April 15 event provides a clue: Johnson said the date will be “the biggest party ever” in the lives of most North Koreans. Not because of the satellite that will purportedly be put into orbit, but rather because it’s the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the current dynasty.

“He’s the eternal president of the nation,” Johnson said, but insisted that the title is not just a flowery Asiatic honorific. “Seriously, seriously. It sounds absurd to us. If you were in North Korea and said he was not the eternal president, you would be sent away.”

“You always know that a country has gone off the rails when they invent their own calendar,” said Johnson. The Juche calendar, introduced in 1997, resets the calendar to 1912 – just like Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” recalibration in Cambodia, or the French Revolutionary Calendar two centuries ago.

Daughters of the Pyongyang elite (Photo: Adam Johnson)

Satellite maps and propaganda

The Orphan Master’s Son is the fruit of nearly six years of research – a research carried out with a stunning absence of reliable data.

“There are great books about the economy of North Korea, its military dimensions, its geopolitics, and its nuclear issues. But the human dimension? About that there’s little,” said Johnson. “We have satellite images, propaganda, and the stories of people who have escaped.”

For example, we don’t know when or how Kim Jong Il died. We’ve heard rumors of four or five coup attempts, Johnson said – but who knows what the truth is?

The truths that wash up on foreign shores are scary: North Korea’s economy apparently depends on state-sponsored organized crime, a mafia class that runs counterfeiting operations for international currency (the United States purportedly had to change its $100 notes for that reason) and which has run a global international insurance scam, involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It reportedly also deals in heroin, opium, methamphetamines and munitions.

The nation has had a long tradition of international kidnappings – including one South Korean film director who was imprisoned until he agreed to make a series of bad movies for Kim Jong Il, who acted as executive producer.

Such accounts invite parody. In his research, however, Johnson focused on devastating accounts of those who have escaped: “Every story is gripping, heart-rending, and utterly unverifiable,” said Johnson. Every citizen makes some variation of Sophie’s Choice just to survive in North Korea. Those are the stories he’s reinvented for his book.

War, war and occupation

The bizarre enigma of North Korea is less incomprehensible in view of its history. “What they remember is war, and war and occupation,” said Johnson.

Bronze busts at the national martyrs' cemetery (Photo: Adam Johnson)

These historical traumas are so deeply engrained that Pyongyang streets are 100 meters wide to allow quick evacuation in the event of another, always-feared American attack.

But for a while the postwar dream worked. In the 1960s, North Korea was even more prosperous than the South.

The dream worked, that is, if you ignored the nation’s massive gulag system that was born with it. It incarcerates perhaps 200,000 people, including entire families. Starvation, forced abortions, execution and infanticide are routine, said Johnson.

The fall of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea lost both a market and a source of foreign aid. The 1990s brought a famine that killed about 10 percent of the population, as well as floods of biblical proportion. In a grimly comic note, the loss of Soviet fertilizer meant “the whole nation now has to save feces for fertilizer,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s previous books include a collection of short stories, Emporium, which featured a bomb-defusing robot and a teenage sniper – in that, he explored “autobiographical” material, he said. His first novel about an apocalyptic plague, Parasites Like Us, took on “my family issues for three generations.”

This time, he decided, “I’m going to write fiction, instead of writing about my own life.” The research he did filled him with a sense of obligation.

“My first duty is to the novel,” he said. “We have a duty to tell the stories of others. Even if we have to invent them.”


A youtube preview for the biggest party evah:

Adam Johnson on North Korea: one central character, and a supporting cast of 23 million

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

A maximalist (Photo: Tamara Beckwith)

I wrote about Adam Johnson in 2009, when he said that, for the last four-and-a-half years (he was careful not to say five), he had been working on a novel about North Korea, in which he will “explore ways people manage to be individual under that regime.”

Noting American value for “free-thinking, spontaneity, ingenuity, individuality,” he added, “Over there, spontaneity can ruin your life.” Nonetheless, the novel invites an examination of the propaganda Americans accept on this side of the Pacific.

Frankly, it didn’t sound as exciting as some of his other work, which had led the Chicago Tribune to claim: “Like a squall moving in on a dead-muggy day, Adam Johnson’s audacious work blows the covers off the short story and leaves the genre newly invigorated.”

I was wrong.  His new book, The Orphan Master’s Son, might be his best ever.  According to a story in the Los Angeles Times today:

Like many Westerners, Johnson initially saw Kim Jong Il as a kind of comic-opera figure and Korea’s Cold War-vintage society as a potential wellspring of satiric material. “I must admit that at the beginning the absurdities and the ironies attracted me,” Johnson said …

Not just a pretty face

Several years ago, he started writing a short story inspired partly by Kim Jong Il’s extravagant eccentricity, “his jet skis and his sushi habit, and he has a whole division of girls to pleasure him.” But that Comedy Central scenario changed as the author began to grasp the Orwellian dimensions of the regime’s power and the hopelessness and fear that pervade its citizens’ lives.

“It’s not just the Kim Jong Il bouffant hairdo,” said Johnson … “When I sit down and talk to people about what I discovered about that place … people are horrified about the gulags and the starvation and things like that.” …

“The more dark realities started inhabiting me, and the more I started dreaming about these places, the more really frivolous a lot of my original interests seemed,” Johnson said. “I know it really sounds cheesy, but I did feel a duty to try to tell the stories of people who couldn’t speak for themselves.”

Possibly Johnson’s greatest challenge was trying to infiltrate the inner lives of characters in a country where self-censorship and blending in with the anonymous throng are essential for survival. …

Reading online translations of North Korea’s government-run paper Rodong Sinmun, Johnson said he came to see that in North Korea there is only one central character, Kim Jong Il, and before that his father, Kim Il Sung, “and then there are 23 million secondary characters.”

Read the rest here.  Or read my own story here:

Given the dark and quirky nature of his stories, Johnson is not what one would expect. The inevitable first impression is massiveness – he’s an imposing 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. But the former construction worker is also urbane, affable, mild-mannered.

Relaxing over his laptop and an iced coffee at the Stanford Bookstore café, Johnson reflects on what distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries: “I’m a maximalist,” he said contentedly. …

Clearly, Johnson is not afraid to whack his readers upside the head: “Why not have a spaceship come into the story? Why not?” To retell an age-old father-son story, Johnson suggested, “put them on an orbiting space station.” Or, better yet, tell the story through two raccoons, he said.