We recently saw that the Korea Economic Institute and The Committee on Human Rights in North Korea are sponsoring a talk this week by Jang Jin-sung (the program is linked here). His theme is how markets are controlled by state actors and princelings, an observation we completely endorse. But his visit also prompts us to finally review his extraordinary Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee--A Look Inside North Korea, certainly the most interesting book I read on North Korea in 2014.
The book is really three-in-one. First, it is yet another extraordinary refugee account of a member of the elite who finally couldn’t take it any more; I was reminded of a few of the stories in Barbara Demick’s classic Nothing to Envy. Jang is powerfully affected by a return to his home town during the famine, when he experiences the jarring contrasts—and personal guilt—of moving outside the bubble of the Pyongyang elite. His birth place is portrayed as a nearly post-apocalyptic world of deprivation, hunger and death, including a jarring account of a People’s Trial and summary execution.
When he does leave, his life as a fugitive underscores powerfully a point we have made in our own work on refugees: that those who get across the border into China are incredibly vulnerable. They operate not only at the mercy of authorities and the elements, but of strangers who can be kind or cruel. The book is worth it simply for the page-turning-thriller quality and excellent writing on Jang’s escape.
Second, the book actually offers one of the rare first hand glimpses we have of Kim Jong Il in person. As a result of his official position as a court poet—on which more in a minute—Jang was actually summoned to a group audience of the United Front Department with the Dear Leader. It proved an emperor-with-no-clothes moment in several ways, but Jang’s fine eye for detail captures a moment that is revealing of why the economic system has failed so spectacularly. At one point in the audience, Kim Jong Il’s attention is drawn to a slogan painted on the wall in yellow letters on a red background (“Let’s Serve Great Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il by Offering Up our Lives!"). Dear Leader wants to know whether it was enameled or hand-painted. Hand-painted. But he had seen others while on an inspection tour that appeared enameled which he didn’t like so much. The official on the spot has the temerity to note that hand-painted versions of the slogan require costly imported paints. Waving away the objection, Kim Jong Il orders the replacement of existing versions of the slogan throughout the entire country with hand-painted ones. Personal excesses can consume only so much, although Jang shows how security and fine wines can consume plenty. But an economy in which resources are allocated fundamentally by whim is bound to have trouble.
For the purposes of this blog, however, the great contribution of Jang’s book is in insight—although necessarily partial—into how elements of the North Korean political system worked. Jang got his break by writing a poem that ultimately caught the leadership’s eye and was subsequently drafted into the United Front Department where he was involved with the country’s massive and finely-honed propaganda efforts. However, debate in South Korea will no doubt be fueled by the fact that Jang’s task was not to polish the image of the Dear Leader domestically, but “to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movement that had risen against the military dictatorship” (p. 6). Basically, Jang’s daily job was to transform himself into a pro-North Korean South Koran poet. Mastering the distinctive literary style and language of the South—achieved through controlled but nonetheless virtually unlimited access to South Korean materials that ultimately prove his undoing—the work of the UFD’s Literature Division (Poetry Office) was distributed into South Korea via pro-North organizations in Japan and Southeast Asia.
Links between the North and the South Korean left remain explosive to this day. But an even more controversial point—made at length in a chapter entitled “The Kim Jong Il Strategy”—has to do with North Korea’s posture vis-à-vis the South. Jang argues that Kim Jong Il faced a dilemma at the outset of the engagement period under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. In desperate need of aid, he was concerned that pressure to pursue a more reciprocal approach might force him to choose between aid and concessions that could have adverse political effects. The solution: the “NLL strategy” of self-consciously using provocations as blackmail. “The underlying logic was simple: South Korea must continue to provide unconditional aid and keep their engagement with the North separate from political issues, or give up peace again (256).” Of course, this argument has long been deployed by conservatives. But according to Jang it was not coincidental but rather a matter of grand strategy since the first such provocation was planned in 1999.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters for North Korea watchers are ones on the regime’s criminal operations and particularly the Organization and Guidance Department (Part II, Chapter Three, “Annals of the Kim Dynasty”). One job of the UFD was to write an official history of the Kim dynasty that would erase any uncomfortable facts; even this task was assigned in a way that the researcher/writers would be compartmentalized. Jang’s task was to consider Kim Jong Il’s activities in the Propaganda and Agitation Department, including his work in the film industry (another example of expenditures driven by whim). Jang offers up some psychological theories of the tension between Kim Sr. and Jr. (129-30), but the main storyline is one I have traced as well in work with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu: how to manage the succession process in a personalist system. Jang traces the early struggles within the family—dating all of the way back to the 1960s—over the succession; Kim Jong Il’s ascent was by no means guaranteed against powerful adversaries including Kim Sung-ae and her son Kim Pyong-il as well as Kim Il Sung’s younger brother Kim Yong-pu. By launching his Three Revolutionary Goals campaign, mimicking the Red Guards, Kim Jong Il managed to build a network of loyalists at the local level.
At the time, Jang claims that Kim Il Sung’s authority operated through government channels; Jang portrays the Workers Party as little more than a bureaucratic front. But Kim Jong Il used the party’s OGD—and his openly sycophantic effort to building up Kimilsungism—as a vehicle for expanding his own authority. Key to this effort was seizing authority over appointments from the government, which consisted of five core tasks:
- Exclusive right to allocate positions of departmental director and above in all institutions, including the military equivalent;
- Assumption of the role of “party guidance”: the ability of the party to oversee—and intervene—in parallel government-level affairs;
- Surveillance over, and capacity to oust, cadre, enforced via lines of authority that ran from the OGD to the Ministry of State Security;
- Wider control to vet and approve policy;
- Responsibility for protection and servicing of the Kim family, including control of the Guard Command and the stream of luxuries they consumed.
Jang walks through the purges that ensued and portrays the late Kim Il Sung regime as one in which the pater familias had essentially been isolated by the astute political maneuvering of his son, who effectively ran the show. Following the succession, this structure gradually weakened core institutions resulting in their complete subordination to the OGD as the instrument of Kim’s rule.
Where I differ with Jang is on whether the power of the OGD has necessarily persisted as an independent source of power and authority, a position which has become associated with Jang’s excellent work through New Focus International; we discussed this issue at length in the wake of the Jang Song Thaek purge, particularly here. We have little doubt that Kim Jong Un has at least tried to build his own independent networks, and interpret the Jang purge precisely in that light; Jang and New Focus are inclined to see it as evidence of an independent center of power and authority in the OGD, a position which would reverse our standard understanding of who is principle, who agent. It may be more appropriate to think of these as complex alliances rather than purely hierarchical relations in any case; organization charts are fine, but in the end even personalist leaders need to put together coalitions to rule, as Jang himself shows.
Despite these quibbles, this is an incredibly rich book. There is so much more here that it is impossible to cover, from the texture of elite life to developments we have covered such as marketization and the emergence of the second economy. If you have a serious interest in North Korea, this needs to be on your reading list.