Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Project Exile: The North Korean propagandist who fled

27 October 2015
Former North Korean poet Jang Jin-sung, who wrote propaganda poems for Kim Jong Il before he defected to South Korea, speaking in London during an Olympics-tied poetry festival, June 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Sylvia Hui)

"If North Korea has a nuclear weapon, South Korea has the truth."

At one time, Jang Jin-sung was one of the few people in North Korea with a view of the outside world.

As a member of the government's United Front propaganda department, his job was to write fawning poetry and literature about former leader Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean regime. Jang wrote under a pen name, and his pseudonym was supposed to be an ordinary South Korean who greatly admired Pyongyang.

"Be Seoul inside of Pyongyang," was the mission of the United Front department. To do this job, Jang and his colleagues were among the few in the country who were allowed access to South Korean books, magazines and newspapers.

[column size=one_half position=first ]

So this is the gun

that in the hands of an inferior man

can only commit murder,

but, when wielded by a great man,

can overcome anything.

As history has shown,

war and carnage belong

to the weak.

General Kim Jong-il,

the General alone,

is Lord of the Gun,

Lord of Justice,

Lord of Peace,

Lord of Unification.

Ah, the true Leader

of the Korean people!

-from the book "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin-sung (1998)

[/column]But reading South Korean media had a dramatic effect on his view of his country. It wasn't that he was unfamiliar with North Korea's poverty: he lived through the famine of the 1990s when as many as 2.5 million people died. Jang just didn't fully realize how different things were elsewhere. That realization led to doubts in his mind about the North Korean state – and eventually a dramatic escape in 2004.

Jang, 44, now lives in South Korea and writes poetry critical of the North Korean regime, spoke with Global Journalist's Lee Ju-hyun about facing death to escape and his recent efforts to counter the North Korean propaganda he once propagated.

Global Journalist: Can you describe what the media environment was like when you were in North Korea?

Jang Jin-sung: First of all, there is neither the concept of freedom of the press nor "reporting" in North Korea. North Korean journalism isn't journalism in the modern sense. Journalism is a sheer propaganda tool to brainwash the people. All reporters belong to the [Workers'] Party, and they can't choose what they report. The party selects the topic by certain themes, like "Anti-America Week" or "Anti-South Korea Month." North Korean society doesn't have a notion of journalism that we know. Press freedom means treason, which will lead to death.


GJ: What was the exact moment you decided to leave North Korea? What changed for you?

Jang: North Korea is even more of a closed society than you might expect. Only the staff of the United Front [propaganda] department were able to see South Korean or other foreign literature and media. Almost at the first moment I opened a South Korean book, my consciousness changed. It's like dropping red ink on pure white paper. When I touched another truth that was totally different from my, or our, previous truth, my thoughts were broken immediately.

Anyway, because I was one of the only people who could have South Korean books, I lent a South Korean magazine [the Chosun Monthly, a conservative magazine] to a my close friend. However, he accidentally misplaced it in the [Pyongyang] subway. Since having foreign literature in public is treason, the next day my friend and I decided to escape.

GJ: What were your emotions during this time?

Jang: I was angry and a bit sad. It was all because of just one magazine. That one magazine made me leave my parents, siblings and friends. That one book changed my life. What is that one book? It is a small, trivial thing, but it means a lot inside that prison, where there is a wall between you and liberty. I was angry both at myself and life inside North Korea.

At first, we decided to cross the Tumen River, which is between North Korea and China, at night. But a search party spotted us as soon as I stepped onto the river. I lied to the company commander and showed him my party identification and told him were doing a secret mission. Luckily, they couldn't call and check our story because there was a power outage. We spent the night and tried to cross the river the next afternoon.

After running a few steps on the frozen river, the frontier guards started to shout: "Look at them! Get those jerks!" When I turned back, several guns were aiming directly at my friend and me. The back of head felt like it was burning I was so afraid. Thankfully, they didn't shoot and so I did–just barely–get to China.

[column size=one_half position=first ] The Executioner

Wherever people are gathered

there are gunshots to be heard.

Today, as the crowd looks on

a man is executed.

'You are not to feel any sympathy!

Even when he's dead, we must kill him again!'

The loudspeakers' words are interrupted.

Bang! Bang!

The rest of the message is delivered.

Why is it that today

the crowd is silent?

His crime: to steal a bag of rice.

His sentence: ninety bullets in his heart.

His occupation: farmer.

-Jang Jin-sung (published after leaving N.K.)

translated by Shirley Lee [/column]

GJ: What was the feeling like when you knew you had succeeded?

Jang: It only took a few seconds to make it, only a few seconds...I questioned why I stayed in that jail for 30 years. Why couldn't I have had the courage for those few seconds earlier? Why was I running now after all of this? I realized that the colors of the mountains, the snow and the trees were the same [in both North Korea and China, where he was free].

GJ: You now publish a news outlet called New Focus in South Korea. How is it different?

Jang: There are some news outlets [in South Korea] only dealing with North Korean issues. But when the report news about North Korea, they mostly cover topics related to the regime, political updates and sensitive information. Sometimes some newspapers misunderstand the issues or even distort the facts to be more provocative.

[New Focus] is trying to focus on the people's side of North Korea, rather than updates about the regime. Frankly, the real engine for change in North Korean society is its people. But most media see only the regime. In addition, I'm also trying to establish a community for escaped North Koreans on the Internet.

GJ: What are your plans for the future?

Jang:  I was born and raised in North Korea. My fate can't be separated from North Korea. My job now is to truly liberate North Korean society, to act as a mediator between two worlds. If North Korea has a nuclear weapon, South Korea has the truth. Truth is the key weapon with which to demolish North Korea's repressive regime.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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