June 09, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "Dear Leader" with Jang Jin-sung

"Jang Jin-sung in discussion with John Sinclair" was how the AWF programme had it, but that wasn't really how it turned out. Jang Jin-sung, the poet and propagandist who defected from North Korea to South Korea in 2003 and made a new life for himself, first as an intelligence analyst (I suppose the months of "debriefing" would have helped him learn the trade), then as a journalist, and now as the bestselling author of a memoir titled Dear Leader, did not actually enter into discussion with "political speechwriter, public servant and yoga teacher" John Sinclair.

Sinclair had some questions lined up, which I'm sure he had spent a fair amount of time excogitating, but they seemed more about providing the translator with periodic rest stops than about initiating exchanges of thought. For it was very clear that Jang Jin-sung had things he wanted to get across to this large gathering of fellow Pacific Rimmers in the ASB Theatre -- I started to say "very large" but considering that when we reach 5 million we'll have 10% of the population of South Korea, perhaps it didn't seem that large to him -- and he already knew what they were.

He looked at us for a moment at the start, offering a friendly "Hello, everybody, nice to meet you", and then at Sinclair for the time it took him to pose his first question, which was 'Do you speak English?", before settling into an intense face-to-face with the translator, whose name I wish I'd caught, because he was wonderful to behold, kind, attentive, and respectful, holding a little pad in the air before him on which occasionally he'd jot down a word, like a seamstress putting in dress pins here and there to keep the underlay in place.

If I tell you that the answer to "Do you speak English?" was "I believe all emotions come from language. Since my childhood I had learned only two emotions in my language, loyalty and hatred. Loyalty to Kim Jong-il and hatred of America", I think you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Here are some of the things Jang Jin-sung wanted to tell us:

"I have only read three books. People think that because I'm a writer I have read a lot of books  But there are only two literary heroes in North Korea - Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, and that was all we could read. Then one day I came to discover Lord Byron's poetry." In North Korea the works of foreign authors are printed in just 100 copies, only made available to high-level officials. It was one of these Byrons which made its way into Jang Jin-sung's hands. "Since then I wanted to become a poet."

Just as well for him, as Kim had shifted the emphasis from novels to poems as the best medium for propaganda. Paper cost too much, and poetry was more economical: "With only two or three lines, you can change the way people think." Poets were in the front line, the "professional revolutionists".

"During the great famine (1994 to 1999) 3 million people died from starvation in North Korea. On a business trip I saw a young girl and gave her some cookies, but she refused and begged me to give her dental paste. I asked her why. The girl said she put a little on the rotting food she found on the street to avoid getting sick. She had lost her little brother to starvation. I wrote a poem about her, called 'The Most Delicious Thing in the World':

     Three months ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was a warm corncob.

     Two months ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was a roasted grasshopper.

     One month ago, my brother said
     The most delicious thing in the world
     Was the dream he ate last night.

     If my brother were alive today,
     What would he say this month, and next, was
     The most delicious thing in the world?

This was the moment when I turned from Great Leader Literature to Realist Literature. When Kim Jong Il died there were three years of funerals. When 3 million people died, there was no funeral."

"There is only one question left for North Korea. It is not, will the country collapse? The only question is when will it collapse. When I was in North Korea, I thought it would not, because of the terror the regime uses. But now that I live in the free world, I know that the answer lies with the free world."

"The outside world must separate the North Korean government and its people. You must negotiate with the people, not the government."

"Please support the people."

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 20:30
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