Structo talks to Jang Jin-sung

“In North Korea something only becomes realistic through the prism of ideology.”

This interview first appeared in Issue 15, published February 2016.

The man who now goes by the name Jang Jin-sung defected from North Korea in 2004. He worked in the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, a group responsible for inter-Korean intelligence, policy making and diplomacy, specifically in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101, creating works of literary propaganda for distribution in South Korea. Jang was forced to flee for his life when a friend lost a forbidden book from Jang’s department on the Pyongyang Metro.

He now lives and works in Seoul, where he edits New Focus International, a magazine reporting on North Korea. His 2014 memoir Dear Leader is an astonishing account of his life in North Korea and his subsequent and dramatic escape to South Korea.

We talked at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Thank you to Prof. Remco Breuker at Leiden University’s School of Asian Studies for arranging the interview, to Aihua Li for translating and to Shirley Lee for providing notes on the text.

—Euan Monaghan

What kind of topics do you want to talk about today?

I’d love to talk about your poetry. And I’m very interested to know how your poetry has changed since you left North Korea. Obviously the subject matter has changed dramatically, but I’m interested in how you feel about poetry now.

The first poetry collection I published after I escaped to South Korea was I Sell My Daughter for 100 Won. In this collection I depicted the situations I saw around me during the terrible starvation period. This topic occupied my feelings completely and I could not really think about other things. During the ’90s, the whole period of North Korea’s starvation, I wanted to piece together all the facets of the starvation that I had witnessed. After publication it became a best-seller in South Korea.

What was your first exposure to poetry?

The first time I came in touch with poetry, and was truly touched by it, was when I read the British poet Byron.

Byron?! Byron was available in North Korea?

Not for the general population. In North Korea, these kinds of books are only for elites, the privileged class. They have a monopoly on culture and when it comes to subversive topics or books. They publish 100 editions and spread them among themselves. And one of them, the collection of Byron’s poems, we had at home to read.

Byron… quite a dramatic introduction to poetry.

Reading Byron had a huge impact on me. It was a publication through which I learned my own Korean language anew. In North Korea, the totalitarian dictatorship of emotion is really important. Normally in North Korea, even within the use of language, they have a class and a hierarchical linguistic system. A super-honorific system, in a linguistic way. The highest class of honorific words can only be used to address the leaders—Kim’s family. But through Byron’s book, I got to know that these kinds of honorifics or pragmatics can also be used to speak honourably about ordinary people.

In North Korea, normally the supreme emotions or feelings you have yourself, like love, you should only reserve these to talk about the Leader. The main character of literature should therefore be the Leader. Or, if you want to make the main character an ordinary person, they should be depicted as being completely devoted to the Leader. But, in Byron’s work, I saw that these human emotions of love were ascribed to a pirate, a bad guy. This was a huge shock to me.

The Corsair?

Yes. And these were topics about love. Normal people’s love. So I was surprised.

When did you write your first poem?

I published my first poem when I was 16—a poem praising Kim Il-sung. The poem was selected for publication and appeared in the Rodong Shinmun.

It was a competition?

Yes. I was chosen from among all the teenagers in North Korea. Only two people got selected to write poems of praise for Kim Jong-il and my poems appeared in the Rodong Shinmun.

The prize was to be published?

North Korea has a personality cult and the prize was that the Leader Kim Jong-il himself would give his appraisal to our writing. So it was the highest honour that one could ever get.

Do you remember the subject?

[Laughs] It was in 1992, it was Kim Jong-il’s 50th birthday. The other university student who got selected and I wrote 25 poems each, so together we wrote 50 poems. The title of the collection was The Sound of the Blessed Generation and it was filled with ‘devotive poems’, meaning poems to flatter, with contents about how loyal the students were to the Leader, etc. We wanted to show our loyalty to Kim Jong-il.

Can you talk about the way your poetry changed during your time in North Korea?

I think that in my case it changed more dramatically than gradually. Usually changes in one’s understanding happen gradually through the changing times and situations that happen both domestically and abroad. [However,] North Korea is a closed country, so only through the outside can one’s consciousness change a little bit. Through domestic influences the society changed slowly, but for me it was different. In the ’90s there was the huge starvation in North Korea and that changed my identity and mind-set as well. After graduation, I worked in the Unification Front Work Department of the party and then I got in touch with a lot of South Korean books. This changed me a lot.

Did you change your writing style as well as your thinking?

Yes, it changed a lot. In North Korea literature is propaganda. Literature is political there. Now I realise that the truth is literature.

Is all literature propaganda in North Korea?

Not only literature, but art, movies and music as well. No artists are free to be creative. It’s all under the party organisation’s control. The creation does not come from your own feeling or your own will, but is prescribed from the top-down, from the Leader or from high-up people who order you to compose something on a topic. They also have a censorship apparatus so, after you compose or finish [a piece], it has to pass through that place.

Historically literature has been very powerful. Would you know if any writing is being done surreptitiously? Is there any illegal poetry being written and circulated?

There isn’t. Even on gravestones you cannot write what you want, only a name and date of birth; because when over three people are able to read it, it is considered propaganda and it will therefore be subject to censorship. The North Korean regime is not sustained because of the physical dictatorship, but rather the emotional dictatorship. No private or individual literature can be written.

When you left, first to China and then to South Korea, how did you begin to express yourself through writing?

After I escaped North Korea and registered in South Korea, I worked as a researcher in the Institute for National Security Strategy. I didn’t think about becoming a writer and living off my writings. Maybe I should explain this point some more: I said earlier that through my poetry I showed loyalty to the North Korean regime, but I have also betrayed them through my poetry. At first I did not want to relive the feeling of having written propaganda poems. That’s why, for some time, I did not do anything with literature. Then one day I just happened to have jotted down several poems again, and I gave it to a publisher without any thought. They published it and it became a best-seller.

How does it feel writing poetry in South Korea compared to the North?

In North Korea, poetry does not come from one’s own feeling or one’s own excitement. It is all forced feeling, and writing what one should write. Of course in South Korea I can write about my own small excitements and the things that move me; it becomes my own personal poem. That is the biggest difference.

Did you feel the need to continue writing poetry?

Yes, I want to go on writing.

It wasn’t spoiled by being forced to write certain subjects?

I’m not focussed on readers; it’s more that I want to write. What I write is what I want to write. Especially for South Korean readers, I just let them judge or figure out my work. A North Korean poet and a South Korean one are totally different.

How are they different?

South Korean poets are a little bit more abstract and hard to understand, and a little bit over-subjective. I think this is influenced by the Japanese colonial period, because during the Japanese imperial period, people could not really write directly or honestly what they thought, out of fear for being arrested. That’s why, from then on, they write indirectly and hide a little bit what they want to say. Even now it’s still a habit for writers. Meanwhile North Korean literature is more a tool. They use literary works directly for propaganda. Too directly! [Laughs] I experienced the North and now I am experiencing the South. For me the unification of North and South Korea has already happened. From this viewpoint I am writing my poems.

Would you say your writing is now Korean? Not North Korean, not South Korean, just Korean?

[Laughs] In South Korea, you cannot write in a North Korean way.

Why not?

[More laughter] North Korean literature deliberately, directly, brainwashed the people. It’s totally different to South Korea. But we cannot say all North Korean literature is bad, because they get influence from Russian literature, [literature] from the former Soviet Union. In Russia they had Realist-Socialism, but in North Korea they say, oppositely, Socialist-Realism. So in North Korea something only becomes realistic through the prism of ideology.

In South Korea, the poet should try to be completely different from the masses. The literature is not for the whole of humanity, it’s more for the individual poet himself. In North Korea they are more focussed on addressing the masses, the residents of North Korea. Their writing techniques have been very well developed in this regard. I think with the North Korean popular approach and the South Korean character, if you would put these two together, it would create nice works: a more artistic character and a little more popular for among the readers.

So, Byron and some Russian authors. What else was available?

Much Russian literature. Tolstoy, Pushkin, Mayakovsky and so on, but none of them left as deep an impression on me as Byron did. That was the first masterpiece for me.

Why do you think Byron made it into North Korea?

The elites like something special that only they are allowed to possess, to feel privileged, so in North Korea they publish only 100 copies of each edition—like this one—of world-famous masterpieces. Each has a number, and they only give it to members of the elite class as a present. Of course Kim has it, and our family had one of them too.

Is that because you were a writer?

Normal poets cannot have these books. The privileged and elite want to have their own culture, and they only give it to the elite groups as a prized possession. Not because I was a writer. Other writers do not have this.

Who chooses the list of 100 books?

Kim Jong-il gave it to the elite group as a present. I think his father was given some [packing] cases and [Kim Jong-il] just found them at home. It’s a present culture.

There’s tight control over the available writing.

North Korea is an ideological country. In a totalitarian society, the residents’ ideas and feelings, even their facial expressions or their laughter and tears, should all be controlled. The normal idea is that one expresses oneself through one’s facial expressions but, in North Korea, the way you feel and speak and think is controlled by the regime.

In the future of North Korea do you think writing and writers and poets will have an influence on the way things will change?

I don’t think the North Korean poets or literary works can influence or change the society [as long as they remain under the current regime] because they are dominated by the political literature and the revolutionary culture.

It’s a very different world. What do you hope to achieve with your poetry now? Is it purely for expression, or do you hope to change things?

I don’t deliberately want to change things by writing, but I am sure that when people read and get to know the truth about North Korea, I am sure they will change their mind. I just want to tell the truth.