North Korea’s former poet laureate to publish memoir in English

A rally in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2003.
(STR/Associated Press)

Rider Publishing, a Random House imprint, acquired world rights to “Crossing the Border,” the memoirs of former North Korean State Poet Laureate Jang Jin-sung, the Guardian reports. In 2004, unable to reconcile his privileged position with the suffering endured by most North Koreans, Jang traveled to China on a pass and from there he found sympathizers who got him to South Korea.

Accounts of North Korea by insiders are rare. North Korean Kang Chol-hwan authored the prison camp memoir “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy,” a National Book Award finalist, told of the hardships of ordinary life in North Korea as related by defectors living abroad.

Other accounts -- such as Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” or reporter John Sweeney’s yet-to-be-published “Zombie Kingdom” -- are often written by those who have barely set foot inside the hermetically sealed regime.

Jang’s memoir will be an insider’s take on the totalitarian state; he was a member of its propaganda machine. In fact, Jang was so close to the dictator Kim Jong-Il that he has seen him cry.


In his role as court poet, Jang met Kim Jong-Il twice, the first time for long enough that he was given “sacred immunity” -- a privilege granted to those who have spent 20 minutes in the dictator’s presence. According to an interview he gave to the BBC, at the second meeting, Jang saw a different side of the leader: “We sat at a performance together, and he kept on crying while he watched it,” Jang said. “I felt his tears represented his yearning to become a human being.”

According to his agent, “Jang was born into a bloodline of impeccable revolutionary credentials.... He went on to join the Central Committee of the North Korean Writers’ Union and worked in the Ministry of Reunification, where he was responsible for creating and disseminating propaganda throughout both North and South Korea.” Jang reportedly was one of the writers responsible for North Korea’s founding myth: that the state had begun on April 15, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic in the West and the rising of the sun -- Kim Il-Sung-- in the East.

“Crossing the Border” will be part of Jang’s long history of resistance of the regime, which began, inside North Korea, with poetry critical of the government and the circulation of banned books. He published the poetry collection “I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won,” which details the horrors of life in North Korea and sold more than 80,000 copies. He now runs New Focus International, a website about North Korea written by its former residents in exile.

In the poem “Pillow”, now part of a special North Korea issue at the website Words without Borders, Jang writes:

Both the seller
And the buyer
Have nothing to offer but themselves
In Pyongyang’s marketplace

Jang’s memoir, translated by Shirley Lee, will detail his meetings with Kim Jong-Il, describe his own escape and document his knowledge of the extreme poverty of most North Koreans. “To have come all this way from the totalitarian state is a blessing,” Jang said. “I will give this book everything I have.”


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