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'Dear Leader’ – but not really

On 8 May, the memoirs of Jang Jin-sung are appearing worldwide under the title Dear Leader. Jan Jin-sung was a member of the personal circle of the former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Dear Leader provides a radically different perspective on the workings of the regime, as it reveals the moving story of Jang, a member of the elite who no longer wanted to be part of it and decided to flee.

Insight into North Korea

Jang Jin-sung (© Martin Alexander)
Jang Jin-sung (© Martin Alexander)

Jang’s memoirs change the way we perceive North Korea. Jang was involved in many important negotiations with foreign nations and he describes the actual motivations behind North Korea’s moves. This is the first time that the regime is described from the perspective of an insider, offering insight into the necessity of the inhuman prison camps from the regime’s perspective. The book presents a radically different explanation of who really holds power in North Korea and of the historical background of the present situation. For this reason, it is imperative that we read these memoirs to be able to formulate a sensible action plan with respect to North Korea.

Fleeing South

As a poet, Jang attracted the attention of Kim Jong Il and was invited into the leader’s inner circle, with all the privileges of such a position, including luxury items, food that was both plentiful and of good quality, a travelling pass, and immunity from prosecution. But Jang saw the conditions in which the Korean people lived, and his privileged position increasingly began to weigh on him. This eventually led in 2004 to his decision to flee to South Korea. There he became one of the most outspoken and eloquent critics of the North Korean regime. He also took the initiative of launching the New Focus website, which produces well-balanced news and analyses created by North Koreans themselves.

A rare voice

With Dear Leader we are at long last given the opportunity to hear a North Korean voice that is not sent by the regime or claims to speak on behalf of North Korea. Non-Korean speakers have often in the past claimed the right to speak for North Korea. As a result, the stories of those in exile are reduced to data which have to be interpreted by third parties in order to be understood. Sometimes the veracity of these stories is put in doubt, in other cases it is not, or too late: think of the hole-in-one myth about Kim Jong Il, the so-called execution by Kim Jong Un of his singing ex, or the story that he had his uncle torn to pieces by hungry hunting dogs.

Forthcoming Dutch translation

The English-language translation of Dear leader was produced by Shirley Lee, PhD candidate under the supervision of Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies, in the context of his ERC Project War of Words. The book is being published both in the US and in England, by different publishers. Breuker himself is responsible for the Dutch translation, which is expected to appear in the fall.

Link to Remco Breuker’s complete text on ‘Dear leader’  

(8 May 2014)

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