North Korea – Daily Life in a Mental Dictatorship at B-Unlimited in The Hague

Jang Jin-Sung is a small, unassuming man who, dressed in brown sneakers and a dark brown leather jacket, joins his large Dutch counter-part, Remko Breuker, on stage. These two men are in the Hague to talk of North Korea, both are experts in their own right. Jang Jin-Sung, former citizen of North Korea and state poet for Kim Jong iI has first-hand experience of living under the regime. Indeed he had the, dubious, honour of meeting the hallowed leader himself. While Professor of Korean Studies at Leiden University, Remko Breuker, who has published widely on North Korean society is a large, bear of a man who caused some controversy in the publication of a recent (2017) report for the Walk Free Foundation, called, ‘Understanding Modern Slavery in North Korea’. Both are quiet-spoken men who agree that the outlook for North Korea is bleak.  The country they describe bears striking resemblance to the Orwellian Big Brother state of 1984. Slogans like ‘ War is Peace’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery’ seem remarkably apt.

‘Freedom is slavery’

Jang Jin-Sung, this is his pseudonym, defected from North Korea in 2004. He found favour as a state poet with Kim Jong and his inner circle after using the voice of a fictional South Korean poet to praise the General. This ingenuity of approach earned him a meeting with the man  himself – an experience which he recalls with both humour and insight. Two things struck him about the North Korean leader – his 10cm platform shoes and his embarrassing outburst of tears over a painting. Jin-Sung remembers his initial surprise at this bizarre outpouring, given that the country was in the grip of a famine which would leave over 3 million dead. He too began to cry, like those around him, his fear was so great, ‘my tears came easily’. He realised later, he told us, that the leader’s crying was an attempt to be human as he had never experienced most of the real tragedy that was common to others. The poet described it to us as trying to ‘steal the humanity’ of others for whom he had created so much suffering. The heart-breaking simplicity of Jin-Sung’s poem, ‘I sell my daughter for 100 won’ captures something of this suffering.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the evening was the complete certainty with which both Jang Jin-Sung and Remko Breuker presented a picture of a regime that lacks even the smallest shred of concern for its citizens. The exiled poet was presented with a Rolex watch worth over 7000 euros by the General and was treated to a banquet that included dishes of  ice-cream, aflame. This, at the height of the famine that was engulfing the country. Both men are also in agreement that the only future for North Korea lies in focusing first and foremost on empowering its people,  rather than attempting negotiation with the regime. Extensive research by Breuker using evidence from refugees has revealed a system build on both physical and mental enslavement. Public executions, extermination camps, forced labour and complete isolation are the weapons used. They are effective. The Dutch historian estimates that one third of those in the extermination camps are there for unknown crimes. While half are there simply as a result of association.

‘People in North Korea have no concept of basic human rights.’ – Jin-Sung.

The Professor’s most recent book on the subject, argues  that the frequent and endemic human rights abuses in North Korea are in fact structural.  Initially a scholar of Medieval  history, Breuker sees striking similarities between state structures like the Inquisition used to control and dominate the people of Medieval Europe and those used in North Korea today.  The West’s efforts to engage Kim Jong il are therefore futile, as his regime relies on this machinery of control in order to survive. Breuker instead suggests more practical, economic approaches that might aid the North Korean people, such as micro-financing for the small-time businessmen who trade with China and greater awareness on the part of Western consumers that ‘Made in China’ is in fact frequently made by North Korean slave labour and only assembled in China. Jang Jin-Sung now lives in South Korea, under 24 hour protection. He has recently written a book about his experiences called Dear Leader. In spite of the difficulties which he has faced, he remains quietly positive and laughs without difficulty. He recalls his first 24 hours in Seoul, wandering about the streets, a little dazed by all the lights, luxury cars and tall buildings. A taxi driver yelled at him to get out of the road and the poet was thrilled. He had been called an arsehole and nothing had happened – he was free!

Souwie Buis    20th October 2018