Selected as a state poet for Kim Jong-il, Jang Jin-sung defected to South Korea and became a best-selling author. He speaks to Libby Powell
How was your work noticed by the regime?
My first poems were published in Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s leading newspaper, in 1992. I was 21 and studying music at university in Pyongyang. Creative works by students were collected by scouts and the best ones picked and sent all the way up to Kim Jong-il.
What attracted Kim Jong-il to your poetry?
Other writers and students all wrote in the clichéd and lofty language that was demanded to please Kim Jong-il but I wrote in my own style. It was very conversational and imitative of Byron, whom I had studied.
It must have struck Kim Jong-il as strange but new. He enforced the propagandistic style of the official ‘Juche culture’ on everyone else but he himself liked exotic things.
What does a North Korean state poet do?
Only six people in the nation were allowed to write official poetry in the epic genre. I was selected by the Unification Ministry, which employed novelists, poets and playwrights to write under South Korean names and provoke anti-regime ideas in South Korea. By the 1990s, this tactic had ceased to work. So the psychological warfare machine was turned against the citizens of North Korea. Works purportedly written by South Korean writers would be published in the North to support the regime. I published only one poem before I defected.
Why did you flee?
I had to leave North Korea when I was caught distributing South Korean books to friends, an act of ‘subversion’ which was punishable by death for three generations of my family. I was doing this because I was deeply disillusioned with the regime once I learnt how it worked.
In South Korea you worked in intelligence. How did that come about?
I had been involved in psychological warfare in North Korea, and South Korea needed that kind of person. I was hired by South Korea’s open source intelligence to conduct public research about North Korea and advise the government. But President Roh Moo-hyun was following a policy of engagement with North Korea, and I was not allowed to say anything negative about the North. My poetry couldn’t be published. It would be seen as compromising the peace.
How did you get your work published?
I went to the conservative publisher, Chogabje, and they were the only ones willing to print my collection of poems. The collection was about the famine of the 1990s. I brought the manuscript out with me when I fled to China. The title was I am Selling my Daughter for 100 won. I witnessed this in Pyongyang – a mother selling her daughter for the equivalent of five pence to buy food for the girl. When the collection was published in 2008, it was a No 1 bestseller.
Didn’t everyone know what life was like in the North?
The story of North Korea had never been told in a literary way. Three million people died in a famine but there was no eyewitness account. Left-wing pro-North Korean groups bought the book and said: ‘This is why we need to make peace with North Korea.’ Right-wing groups bought it and said: ‘This is a serious human rights issue, we must bring down North Korea’. Three million starving is not tragedy, it is a massacre.
How did North Korea respond?
North Korea has issued seven death threats against me. The government has even issued an official satirical poem of my life. That’s why I have protection from the South Korean government.
You are writing your autobiography. Why now?
I have a literary urge, not only a human urge, to speak. North Korea is seen – and avoided – as a political issue, instead of being acknowledged as an ongoing human disaster on the grandest scale. I have to tell the story through literature instead of through policy papers. I hope my memoir will be published abroad.
Looking at North Korea today, do you see any cracks in the regime’s control?
Yes. North Koreans, who before only knew loyalty, now know market forces. As there are no systematic rations anymore, markets have been allowed. Supply and demand feeds the country now, and people answer physically to their stomachs not to abstract loyalty. If this continues, the cracks will grow stronger.