Crossing the Border: Jang Jin Sung, North Korea's poet laureate, to publish memoirs

North Korean defectors hold defaced posters of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un as they participate in an anti-North Korea protest in front of the South Korean Defense Ministry on Nov. 29, 2010 in Seoul.
Credit: Chung Sung-Jun

We know famously little about North Korea, and what few accounts we do have usually come to us through the prism of a paranoid regime's propaganda.

Now, one of the people who used to be responsible for creating that propaganda is offering a rare glimpse of the reality that prompted him to flee his native country.

Jang Jin Sung, former poet to Kim Jong Il, has announced plans to publish his memoirs in an English-language translation. Titled 'Crossing the Border,' the book is due for publication next spring by Random House imprint Rider.

While other accounts by North Koreans defectors exist, most detail the experiences of "ordinary" citizens ground down by an authoritarian government. 

Jang's work is billed as unique in coming from someone who was close to that government, who not only cooperated with it but actively shaped its myths. As he told the Daily NK website in 2008, "The more one serves the regime, the more one knows its true nature."

More from GlobalPost: A North Korean defector's story (VIDEO)

Employed to write pro-Pyongyang propaganda for publication in state media, Jang at one stage "helped develop the founding myth of North Korea as having begun on 15 April, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic in the west and the rising of the sun – Kim Il Sung – in the east," his agent, Marysia Juszczakiewicz, told the Guardian

Jang met Kim Jong Il twice, he told the BBC last year, and received a Rolex watch and other special favors as a token of the regime's appreciation.

Even from his privileged position, Jang could see the cracks in the façade: meeting Kim for the first time, "I thought the image I had received of him – through brainwashing – was very different to how he appeared in person," he said.

The second time they met was "quite shocking," Jang recalled. "We sat at a performance together, and he kept on crying while he watched it. I felt his tears represented his yearning to become a human being, to become an ordinary person." 

Jang could not ignore the rampant inequality that separated North Korea's leaders from most of its people, he said, and eventually began writing poems critical of the authorities and circulating banned South Korean books. In 2004 he fled to South Korea via China when his activities threatened to put him in danger.

Since then he has published a book of poetry describing his memories of North Korea, 'I Am Selling My Daughter For 100 Won,' and edits a website dedicated to giving North Korean defectors a platform to describe the reality of life in their homeland.

North Korea "may have nuclear weapons," Jang told the Guardian, "but we have the media."

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