Tuesday, May 13, 2014

North Korean Memoir – A Transforming Read

Moving hearts, minds and the soul.

This just-released book is the sort that can save lives – hopefully even 25 million of them. It is a memoir written by Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector and ex-poet laureate for Kim Jong-il, and translated into English by Oxford-educated Shirley Lee. It is the most absorbing read that this blogger has had in many years. Why is it better than the many noteworthy books on North Korea that have been published before? Because it was written by a high level insider - one of the country’s chief propagandists - who also happens to be an articulate and sensitive writer, with a vastly different perspective from that of a Westerner or a "common" (if there can be such a characterization) North Korean escapee. 

It's not just a searing indictment of the Kim dynasty or a political dissertation that details the organization and functioning of a Stalinist dictatorship. It's not just an intimate account of unimaginable human suffering that has been inflicted on a nation’s population over the past few decades by an evil regime. It's not just a thrill-a-minute international espionage story that follows two high-value defectors as they flee, starving and penniless, across the winter landscape of Korea and Northern China, hunted by security forces from both countries. In fact, it is all of these story lines, plus more. The range of its setting stretches from privilege to privation. It is a depiction of a place that seems surreal and hallucinogenic, though it is only too real. It is a story of a man’s awakening from a blinkered life to a wide world beyond his imagining – both its horrors and beauty. It is about his coming to terms with terrible truths and the equally terrible lies that he had helped to perpetrate. It is a buddy story about two young men on the run who share every human emotion possible – from valor to shame to frailty to brotherly love. And perhaps most importantly, it is an epic poem, written by a talented story teller. As such, the book touches the reader in ways that no other account of North Korea has done before. By interweaving original poetry and lyrical descriptions of artistic expression into a John le Carre thriller, there is something for everyone. It runs both wide and deep, like a restless ocean.
As such, it has the potential to reach an audience that is broader than any book on the subject. One can only hope that it does, and that by burrowing deeply into millions of readers, it changes the perspective and energy of the global dialogue on North Korea. Such change is desperately needed – evil on this scale needs to be combatted by more than just a handful of poignant, indomitable souls such as Jang Jin-sung, or a few politicians and international NGOs. At stake are millions of lives, and our very humanity.

Jang Jin-sung's blog: www.newfocusintl.com.


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