North Korea is a country that has become notorious for its drug trade, weapons trafficking, and terrorism. It has been in the news lately because of high-profile defectors who have risked their lives to escape this oppressive regime. One such defector is Jang Jin-sung. He was one of North Korea’s propaganda chiefs before he escaped from his homeland with millions of dollars worth of gold bars in tow. Having survived starvation, underground samizdat publishing through the auspices of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, and at one point being caught in a shootout between North Korean soldiers and Chinese gangsters after he had already made it across the border to China, Jang has led an exciting life.
He is currently working with HRNK to bring more public awareness to North Korean issues. He also has another post-defection job as a writer of books, music, and film scripts. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview him about his experiences growing up in North Korea under the reign of Kim Jong-il and beyond. I am grateful to him for taking the time out of his busy schedule.
Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us. I’m writing a book about North Korea and was hoping to read up on what exactly it is like growing up in North Korea, especially under Kim Jong-il who had decades of experience as leader before he eventually died. What was it like?
I’d be happy to share my experiences, but I must emphasize that they are only my own. There will of course be innumerable differences between what I went through and what someone else might have experienced – and for that reason, we need more former North Koreans brave enough to provide their insights into daily life in the DPRK. For now my personal experiences can hopefully provide a small insight into one person’s life but I believe that will change in time.
The state propaganda about the leader is nothing more than an apparatus for brainwashing the people – the citizens are taught to worship him. There are no images or busts of anyone else anywhere, only Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The state propaganda was pervasive and total – it reached every classroom, home, office, factory, farm, theater and radio set. This reinforced the personality cult that existed in North Korea already; the only time anyone would even hear another leader’s name was when they were taught about how glorious Kim Il Sung had been at various important historical events.
When I was in Pyongyang, there were portraits of Kim Jong Il hanging everywhere you looked – on the walls of buildings, on the sides of buses and trains, even on balconies. Without knowledge of satellite images or foreign media it would have been easy to believe that he actually did look over every building! There were also constant flower displays and rallies held in his honour, and the state media broadcasted documentaries, films and TV dramas that glorified him.
The level of political control was extremely high too. The only party to be recognized by the government is the Workers’ Party of Korea – there are no other political parties allowed at any level of society. Every North Korean citizen is required to become a member of the party and is obliged to keep their membership card on them at all times. This, along with their personal identity book which contains information about everything they have ever done, is checked frequently by the police and other state officials.