Escape from the Hermit Kingdom

Writer Jang Jin-sung joined the ranks of North Korea's elite propaganda machine in the late 1990s, even scoring an invitation to a formal lunch with the eccentric Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-il. Among Jang Jin-sung's duties was posing as a South Korean intellectual to create propaganda and write gushing poems for the dictator. But Jang Jin-sung found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the excesses of the regime with the starving hordes on the streets, and after he was caught smuggling a South Korean book out of the fortified offices of the United Front Department in 2004, he fled across the border into China with a close friend. This is his story ...

A little after midnight, just as i'm settling into bed, the phone begins to ring. I decide not to answer before the fifth ring, and hope it will stop before then. "Hello?" In the silent house, my voice sounds more intrusive than the ringing phone. "This is the First Party Secretary." At these words, I involuntarily jerk upright and jar my skull against the headboard. "I am issuing an Extraordinary Summons. Report to work by 1am. Wear a suit. You are not to notify anyone else."

Although in this country we are accustomed to obeying even the strangest command as a matter of course, it's disconcerting that the First Party Secretary himself has just given me an order. He is the Central Party liaison for our department. Under normal circumstances, I would expect to receive orders from the Party Secretary of Division 19 or Section 5, in keeping with my position in the organisational hierarchy of the ruling Workers' Party. On top of that, he has used the term "Extraordinary Summons".

We cadres who belong to the Central Party, unlike ordinary North Koreans attached to regional or departmental Party branches, know that an "Extraordinary Summons" can lead to an encounter with Kim Jong-il, our Dear Leader. When someone is summoned to meet him, there is no advance notification. Not even the highest-ranking generals are made aware of the operational details of these meetings. An invitation to meet Kim is relayed through a First Party Secretary, who is summoned to a Party Committee room that has been placed under lockdown by Dear Leader's personal bodyguards.

Under their close surveillance, the First Party Secretary receives a list of names and issues the individual summons for each cadre, with the logistics of the encounter carried out in strict secrecy. In this situation, the term "Extraordinary Summons" is the code phrase that sets this clandestine process in motion.

Dear Leader's personal guards lead us to a large hut, where we take our seats in a room that is about 1000 square metres. We are told to remain silent. Everything is white: the chairs, the floor, the walls. There are no windows. Instead, there are squares of green-tinged light shining from built-in wall panels.

At half-past noon, more than four hours after we arrived on the secret island where our Dear Leader is located on this day, there is a sudden burst of activity around us. Guards wearing white gloves spray something onto the chair where Dear Leader will sit. Comrade Deputy Director makes us stand in line again. We are ordered to take off our watches and hand them in, as part of the security procedure. Each of us is then handed a small envelope. The outer packaging has Japanese characters printed on it. Inside, there is a small cotton wipe that smells of alcohol. Comrade Deputy Director instructs us: "You must clean your hands before shaking hands with the General." He then comes forward, singling me out for a stern instruction: "You must not look into the General's eyes." He gestures to the second button of his uniform jacket and says, "You must look here. Understand?"

I wonder whether this is intended to impress on me my inferiority to Dear Leader, but the thought quickly passes. We continue to wait as Comrade Deputy Director finalises seating arrangements. Again, I'm at the back of the line. There are seven civilians in the room, and more than 20 guards around us. We stand rigidly, staring in silence at a pair of closed gates for perhaps 10 more minutes. They are large and white, and decorated with gilded flowers. When the gates finally open, a guard with the rank of colonel marches through and stands to attention. "The General will now enter the room," he announces.

Everyone and everything turns to stone. Keeping my head still, I focus my gaze on a point halfway up the arch where Kim Jong-il's face will soon appear. Another minute seems to pass. Unexpectedly, a small white puppy tumbles into the room. It is a Maltese with a curly coat. An old man follows, chasing after the puppy that belongs to him. We raise our voices in unison to salute Dear Leader. "Long live the General! Long live the General!" Our combined cheer hurts my eardrums, but the puppy is unperturbed by the noise, probably used to such fanfare. However, Dear Leader must be pleased that his puppy has shown such courage, because he bends down to stroke it. He then mutters something into its ear.

I feel let down when I see Dear Leader up close, because I am confronted by an old man who looks nothing like the familiar image of the People's Leader. Even though we are clapping fervently and cheering for him, he doesn't respond or even seem to notice. He continues to play with his puppy, as if resentful of being surrounded by men who are younger than him. Seeming to read my mind, he looks up and my heart skips a beat. As if we had all been waiting for this moment, we cheer even more loudly. "Long live the General! Long live the General!"

He glances around the room, then strides in my direction. I prepare myself for the glorious encounter, but he walks straight past me, halting before a slogan displayed on the wall behind us. In yellow letters on a red background, it reads: "Let's serve Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong-il by offering up our lives!"

He steps back a few paces, inspects the slogan for a few more seconds, and gives an order with a quick wave of his hand: "Replace existing versions of this slogan throughout the country with hand-painted ones."

Then the General wheels around, catching me off guard, and thunders, "You, boy! Are you the one who wrote that poem about the gun barrel?" I bark my carefully worded response: "Yes, General! I am honoured to be in your presence!" He smirks as he approaches me. "Someone wrote it for you, isn't that right? Don't even think about lying to me. I'll have you killed." As I begin to panic, Dear Leader bursts into hearty laughter and punches me on the shoulder. "It's a compliment, you silly bugger. You've set the standard for the whole Songun [military first] era."

I find myself unable to respond, and it doesn't help that Party Secretary Kim Yong-sun is glaring at me. Before the General takes his seat, Kim Yong-sun finds an opportunity to scold me. "You stupid bastard. You should have thanked him. You should have responded by offering to write poems of loyalty even from your grave," he hisses into my ear.

I was loyal and fearless. I didn't have to live in terror of the consequences of being late for work. Nor did I need to keep my head down like other cadres in an attempt to be invisible at Party meetings, for fear of becoming the next target of criticism. I had immunity, thanks to Dear Leader, who had sanctified me after being moved by a poem I wrote in his honour. The world might damn North Korea as a ruthless regime that kills its own people, claiming that the system is oppressive and run by physical force. But this is only a partial view of how the country is governed.

Throughout his life, Kim Jong-il stressed, "I rule through music and literature." Despite being the Commander-in-Chief of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Chair of the National Defence Commission, he had no military experience. In fact, he began his career as a creative professional, and his preparation for his succession to power began with his work for the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

To express this in the language of "dictatorship" understood by the outside world, Kim Jong-il wielded a double-edged sword: yes, he was a dictator by means of physical control, but he was also a dictator in a more subtle and pervasive sense: through his absolute power over the cultural identity of his people. In a mode characteristic of socialism, where ideology is more important than material goods, he monopolised the media and the arts as a crucial part of his ambit of absolute power. This is why every single writer in North Korea produces works according to a chain of command that begins with the Writers' Union Central Committee of the Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department.

Our main task, from the moment we arrived at work to the moment we left, was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets and write South Korean poetry. To be more precise, we were to be South Korean poets who were supporters of Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. Our names and surnames had to be different from our real names, and when asked to choose a pseudonym I had used the name of the first relative who came to mind. Supervisor Park Chul deliberated for more than three hours on whether the name sounded plausible as that of a South Korean poet before he granted permission for me to assume it.

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. Because of our identity as inhabitants of the outside world, the resources we received - different each time - came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the United Nations and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean non-government organisations and religious organisations. In the five-kilogram packages that we received, there would be rice from the US, cheese, butter, olive oil, mayonnaise and even underwear and socks.

It was 1999, on a day that had started out just like any other. I was walking past Dongdaewon Area on my way somewhere. Even though it was situated in the capital, Pyongyang, Dongdaewon was an impoverished district where the city's poorest people were concentrated. The market was shabbier than most, and vendors who couldn't afford the rent grasped in desperation at passers-by. One of them approached me and held out some bread. "Please buy a packet of bread for 100 won. Please, help me!" Her wrinkled hand was swollen and split in many places as she held out a packet containing five little buns each the size of a baby's fist. I just wanted to give her 100 won (about 12 cents) and not take the packet, but I realised that I had left my wallet in my other coat at home.

"I'm sorry, I left my wallet at home. Really." She might have pleaded with me one more time, but instead she shook her head from side to side with disdain as she looked me up and down, taking in my well-dressed appearance. It didn't help that I was wearing a formal suit and tie. I wanted to get away from the embarrassing situation as quickly as I could. But just then, several people ran past, one of them bumping into me. A throng of people was gathering up ahead, to my annoyance. I had wanted to pass through quickly, because the distinctive smell of the marketplace revolted me. Meat and fish that had gone off in the scorching heat were still on display, with vendors trying to keep the flies away with their fly swats. The ground was unpaved, and food waste and sewage pooled on the muddy earth. The stench of body odour and human excrement added to the other smells, and I had to try hard to keep myself from throwing up.

"Can I get through, please? I have to be on my way." In the square where all the buyers and sellers usually gathered, there stood a woman and a young girl, like prisoners about to be shot at a public execution. I stiffened with disgust when I saw what was written on the piece of paper hanging from the girl's neck. She looked to be about seven years old. The note read, "I sell my daughter for 100 won."

The woman standing next to her, who seemed to be her mother, had her head hung low. I'd often heard of cases where a mother would abandon her child or give it away, but never had I come across someone who was selling her own child for as little as 100 won.

An old man asked the girl in a loud voice, "Child, is that woman really your mother? You can tell the truth; we're here to help. Is she really your mother?" I watched the girl's lips. As she hesitated, shouts rang out from here and there in the crowd. When someone shouted, "Everyone, be quiet! Let's hear what the girl has to say!" even the middle-aged man standing next to me, who kept scratching at different parts of his body, stopped what he was doing.

The girl mumbled an answer while clutching at the woman's clothes. "She is my mother." Her mother? And that mother was selling her daughter for 100 won?

The circle of onlookers grew more agitated. Another voice rang out from the mob, asking the girl whether she had a father, as if resigned to the fact that it was no use cursing at a deaf and dumb woman. "No, I don't have a father any more. He didn't have enough food ..."

The girl mumbled her answer again, then suddenly looked up and screamed, "Stop saying bad things about my mother! They say she's only got a few more days to live! She's going to die!"

The child's shriek pierced the air. Some began to tut, as if to acknowledge that waiting for a certain death was worse than death itself. Looking at the mother and daughter in that place, I felt sure that we were living in the end days of the world. An old woman near me began to cry.

"Don't look back. keep your eyes ahead," I panted again and again as we sprinted across the ice. The river's frozen surface beneath our feet turned at last into land. We [Jang Jin-sung and his close friend Young-min] had stepped into China, and had committed an unredeemable act of treason. On the North Korean side, a soldier yelled, "Shoot! Shoot!" The shout sounded as if it was coming from very near. I heard no shots, but imagined a bullet grazing past me, lodging itself in a tree up ahead. I couldn't look back, because there was no way back.

Gritting our teeth, we kept going, heading for the nameless mountain ahead of us. Although my legs were moving, the mountain seemed to be getting further away. With almost every step I fell to the ground like jelly. The snow was ankle-deep, and my limbs were too weak to support my body. When one of us fell, the other pulled him back up. Fear pushed us on and kept us moving; fear prevented us from looking back to see who or what was behind us.

"Just a little further. We're almost there," I gasped. Strangely, I found a rage surging from within, drowning out the terror that had been gripping me. Had this narrow stretch of frozen river been all that had condemned us? Still, we were not yet free. Terror lay not only in the guns behind us. Soldiers might appear somewhere ahead, too. I said to Young-min, "Check around for patrols; you look right, I'll look left."

Snow, fields, mountains. There were no soldiers in this landscape. We were relieved to hear each other's voice say the same words: "No one on this side." Even the urgent shouts of the North Korean soldiers had faded into silence. But this exposed us to the terrifying vacuum of China's vast emptiness, waiting to swallow us whole. China's soldiers might be waiting for their approaching prey, hiding in a future we could not see. The countryside was covered with trees, so unlike the barren hills of North Korea. These trees would welcome and hide us.

Only a few minutes before, we had looked on this place as if it were a distant planet, but now we were standing within that other world. Only now did we catch our breath, turning to look back towards North Korea. There were no soldiers on our trail. We were seized by ecstasy. As we stood there, gawking at each other like fools, tears ran down Young-min's cheeks. When he wiped my face with the back of his hand, I realised that I was crying, too. But it didn't matter, because crying at times like these was the mark of a true man. Instead of saying this out loud, I made a fist and punched Young-min's chest. He did the same to me. After two or three more punches, the punches became tickles, and we fell about laughing. We had experienced a miracle, and we were proud of our courage.

Jang Jin-sung finally made it to the South Korean embassy in Beijing. Sadly, his friend Young-min was caught by Chinese authorities, and upon the threat of being returned to North Korea, killed himself. Jang Jin-sung now lives in Seoul.

Edited extract from Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung (translated by Shirley Lee), published this week by Random House. Jang Jin-sung will appear at the Sydney Writers' Festival, May 19-25.

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop