North Korea has been known as the ‘hermit state’ for decades due to its extreme isolation from the outside world. Under the rule of current dictator Kim Jong-un, who ascended to power in 2011, secrecy about life in the nation has remained one of his top priorities. In the past, parallels have been made about George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ and North Korea’s extreme level of censorship, surveillance and propaganda. But unearthed accounts from the nation’s former poet laureate reveal another comparison to the book that may go unknown within the state.
Jang Jin-sung served as a propaganda writer in the United Front Department in North Korea during Kim Jong-il’s tenure as Supreme Leader.
The writer claimed his talent was first noticed by the then-leader, Kim Jong-un’s father, after he wrote ‘Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord’, according to a 2014 New Statesman article.
He claimed that he was able to craft more powerful literature thanks to being exposed to the poetry of Lord Byron when he was 15 years old.
Jin-sung claimed not to know how the book was in his father’s possession – but had it been discovered, his family would have been punished as “access to any foreign culture is a crime” for civilians.
Only the elite are allowed to read works from the “hundred copy collection” – a selection of Western literature limited to only 100 copies – which is believed to help them govern the state.
After Jin-sung read Byron he realised the level of brainwashing within North Korea and how contrary to their propaganda “every one of us” could be considered “great”.
Literature in the state dictated that only Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, could be described as having “greatness” and it was not a “quality” ordinary people could aspire to possess.
While working for the regime’s United Front Department he “witnessed firsthand” their goals for “policymaking, espionage and ‘engagement’ with the outside world”.
He claimed their work functioned as a “controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea”.
Jin-sung wrote: “I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101.
“Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work.”
In the book, ‘Room 101’ is where the character O’Brien is sent to face “the worst thing in the world” to punish his dissidence after being tortured.
He was only released once his love for ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Party’ reemerged and he betrayed his fellow ‘traitor’ of the state.
For Jin-sung and the other writers they were required to craft poetry that expressed the “institutional line”.
He wrote: “No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance.
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“Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il.
“My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.”
Jin-sung defected after a friend accidentally left a ‘forbidden’ book he had let him borrow on public transport.
He feared there would be repercussions of the novel being tracked back to him and fled to China, where he went into hiding.
By 2005, he arrived in South Korea where he worked for the state’s National Security Research Institute before publishing a memoir and founding a newspaper.
Jang Jin-sung’s account ‘Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea’ was published by Atria in 2014 and is available here.