Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung

JangDearLeaderWhy I Read It: I wanted to read something educational.

Where I Got It: Review copy from the publisher (thanks!).

Who I Recommend This To: Care to learn more about North Korea? This is a very interesting tale.

Narrator: Daniel York

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2014)

Length: 11 hours 43 minutes

Author’s Page

In this nonfiction tale of living and working in North Korea, Jang Jin-sung takes the reader through his life from a young age, through his schooling successes, his recognition by the Dear Leader himself (Kim Jong-il), and then to his flight from North Korea to China and eventually South Korea. I found this book fascinating. Granted, part of that fascination was due to my near total ignorance of North Korean politics and culture. And yet, I believe this book could hold the attention of those well read on the subject. Jang makes the information very accessible by bringing the reader into his life and his culture.

When I picked this book up, I thought it would be an educational, if a bit stuffy, read. Instead, I was riveted. I didn’t want to put it away in the evening and I found myself regurgitating tidbits of what I had learned to my man over dinner. Jang shares several anecdotes from his life that helped me to understand how tightly controlled the country is, how devoid of outside information it is. Having a book of classic English poetry in ones possession is dangerous. The image of the Dear Leader is nearly everywhere and is treated almost like a spiritual icon. At a young age, Jang was instructed to become a musician; however, this was not his calling. Yet it was very difficult to change the course of his education. As an American, I have so many freedoms and this book shined a new light on those freedoms and deepened my appreciation for them.

Eventually, Jang got a job in the government’s propaganda department. He was now legally sanctioned to view/read/listen to art, news, magazines, movies, music, etc. from outside North Korea. His focus was imitating the style of South Korean poets in order to write and have published (in South Korea) pieces that shined a positive light on North Korea. Now I figure every country has a propaganda department, but I was surprised at how controlled and insidious the North Korean department was.

The book has its poignant moments as well. Jang is given a week’s paid vacation and he wishes to visit his home village from his childhood (both he and his parents live in the capitol city of Pyongyang for the majority of the book). This allows hi to describe the difficulties inherent in traveling the country (so many checkpoints and train delays). Then he describes the state of his home village and the people (this is during North Korea’s great famine). Later in the book, Jang and friend must escape North Korea. There are plenty of desperate moments on that journey that show just how precarious their situation is. With so very little news and culture allowed into North Korean, many North Koreans know no other language. You can imagine how this would hinder their escape and make them stand out. This book also offers moments of great trust between one human and another, not only in North Korea but also in China. It was uplifting to see that so many people had a conscience and tried, even in a some small way, to make the situation better.

And then there was all the weird stuff – North Korean women paid and required to sleep with prominent politicians or business men from other countries and bear their children (who would be used as game pieces in politics); the whole Admitted cadre that grants the members extra food and political considerations; many songs are about Dear Leader (in a good light) or are whistling (as no one and nothing can be held in higher esteem than the North Korean leader). The list goes on. I won’t spoil things for you; just know that this book is a trove of cultural tidbits that I had not heard of before.

Over all, this book reads very quickly. There was one or two points where the narrative bogged a little in history of North Korea, but in my case I think this was due to information overload. 99% of the info in this book was brand new to me so in the few cases where lots of North Korean politician names were bandied about, I became a little lost. Still, that is a very minor negative in comparison with the wealth of knowledge I gained from this book.

The Narration: The narration was excellent. Daniel York did a great job with distinct character voices and emotions. I only know a little Chinese so I can’t speak to accuracy of his North Korean accents and use of Korean words, but I can say it worked for me.

What I Liked: Lots of intense moments; very educational; kept me entertained; several poignant moments.

What I Disliked: There were a few spots where the narrative slowed down.

What Others Think:

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