Dear Leader: From inside the North Korean elite

May 9, 2014

By Alex Glynn

L-R: John Everard, Jang Jin-sung, Shirley Lee and Peter French.

North Korea’s former poet laureate gave the Frontline Club a rare opportunity to hear about life inside one of the world’s most secretive and intriguing nations, in a discussion about the reality of its present and possibility of its future. Defector Jang Jin-sung was joined by Asia expert and commentator, Peter French, in a talk chaired by former British ambassador, John Everard on 8 May.

Everard started the discussion by asking Jang if he thought North Korea has changed since he left, to which Jang replied through his translator, Shirley Lee, who is also an academic and editor of New International Focus, that the biggest change was the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son, Kim Jong-un. Now living in South Korea, Jang founded the defector’s magazine New International Focus, but before he left, he lived a life of privilege and was the older Kim’s favourite poet.

“The single most important change is that the young man came into that leadership rather than grew into it [like his father]. On the surface, it looks like a Kim was ruling then and a Kim is ruling now, but what also happened was the elite structure that supported Kim Jong-il’s leadership has remained unchanged. Kim Jong-un is the avatar, is the icon off Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-sun, he is not a person, he is an image that we see.”

Everard asked French to explain his claim in his book that suggests there is a logical consistency to the way North Korea is acting.  “This is a country that was threatened with nuclear annihilation,” French replied. Referring to their colonisation by Japan and the following Korean War, he added, “For all this theatrical victimhood of this period, [their behaviour] is sort of understandable. Kim Jong-sun is still considered by many who defected from the country as a great man. In the post-WWII period, he was a great nation builder. The idea in its totality is a compelling idea, but in its reality it becomes totally warped.”

An audience member asked the panel, “If the current regime collapses, who would be there to pick up the pieces?”

“The dirty little secret for all of us is reunification is not something we want,” said French. “Unfortunately because there are 22 million North Koreans, we can’t afford it. The division between North and the South has grown and grown and many young people in South Korea don’t want to take this on; they want to get a mortgage, buy a house and to do what everyone else does. Nobody needs this bill right now.”

When asked by an audience member, “What do you think North Koreans think about the outside?” Jang answered, “A lot of people rightly worry about the physical implications of collapse, and any change in the status quo in terms of economics, security and refugees. But I know how difficult it has been for me, a man who had full access to South Korean culture, and I still feel underage.”

“If we do not begin to think about the emotional cost of recovering the lost humanity of the North Korean people, no matter what happens at the top, no matter what leadership comes in, the people will not be ready to enjoy what they are entitled to.”

You can listen back or watch the event here:



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