I could not put this book down! After reading The Orphan Master’s Son (which I reviewed here), I have been researching North Korea, a country shrouded in mystery and propaganda. Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung is a startling and harrowing exposé of a terrifying political regime and one man’s courageous escape to South Korea. I highly recommend grabbing a copy and sitting down for an epic, fascinating, tear-jerking and heartwarming tale of escape and survival …
Jang Jin-Sung is living a very lucky and privileged life in Pyongyang. As a talented poet and writer (one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite poets actually), he works for the propaganda department responsible for sending pro-North Korea propaganda to South Korea, as a part of the program promoting reunification of the two rival countries. In this role he has access to highly sensitive South Korean documents and books, ones that reveal a very different history to what is presented in North Korea. When a colleague, Young-min, loses one of these books (which charts the history of Kim Jong-il’s rise to power in a way that was definitely not sanctioned by the government) Jang and Young-min escape in the night, fleeing across the border into China.
In China, the two men struggle to survive and evade the authorities who will drag them to prison or send them back to North Korea. They set the goal of getting to the South Korean Embassy in Beijing and along the way, meet some of the kindest people who help them across China. Finally, Jang escapes into South Korea, where he works for them and achieves the greatest freedom.
Dear Leader is thrilling and gripping. The translation is really well done so it is fast paced and keeps you hanging on to every word. As Jang was quite high up in the propaganda department, he has used this book as a way to expose some of the chilling realities of life in North Korea. I found myself in tears reading about his family and friends starving in his home village, and how he had to witness a public execution when a month previously he had been at a banquet with Kim Jong-il himself, who had served a seven-course meal and behaved appallingly. This book is an exposé on the terrifying regime, economic frailty and Cult of Personality that grips North Korea. Jang is a correspondent for major world newspapers and after his escape in South Korea, he joined their propaganda department doing the reverse of his original job, now sending South Korean messages to North Korean citizens still trapped under oppression. He shares his memoirs in this Guardian Interview.
I wanted to sob in the final chapter because after all the struggles and fear, Jang Jin-Sung found some wonderful people who gave him a home and friendship, and a link to finally escape into South Korea. He achieved his citizenship there, worked for their intelligence agency and sought to expose the Cult of Personality and history of North Korea and Kim Jong-il to help the wider world understand more about the secretive nation.
Dear Leader is an amazing read, one you should not miss this year! It gives you perspective on life, hope for the future and faith in humanity, along with the utmost admiration for the bravery and resourcefulness of Jang Jin-Sung.