Defector Is Best-Selling Poet

As court poet for North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, Jang Jin-sung enjoyed all the trappings of life among the Pyongyang elite. But he traded it in for a dangerous flight to South Korea, where he is now a best-selling author of poems chronicling the grueling misery of North Korean life.

North-Korean-Girl-305.jpg This undated hand-out picture released 18 December by the Japan-based group RENK (Rescue the North Korean People ! Urgent Action Network) shows a barefoot North Korean girl picking up walnut shells at a "black" market in central North Korea in October.
A former court poet for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has become a best-selling author and media sensation in South Korea, where his poems about the brutality of everyday life in North Korea have now been published for the first time.

Jang Jin-sung uses a pseudonym to avoid endangering relatives left behind in isolated and bankrupt North Korea. A graduate of Kim Il Sung University, he became a favorite of the Pyongyang government and was twice invited to meet leader Kim Jong Il.

“The first time I met Kim Jong Il, I felt overwhelmed with emotion,” Jang said in an interview. “But once I realized that he was the world’s richest king, ruling over the poorest country on the face of the Earth, that was a turning point.”

“To me, he was no longer a god, and I came to think that I could no longer live under that system.  Preserving that regime while the people of North Korea are starving to death, that is an abomination,” Jang said.

In tightly closed North Korea, literature—like all the arts—remains under strict government control. All literature and publishing is dictated by the Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, the General Federation of Korean Literature, and the Culture and Arts Department of the Party's Central Committee. Jang was a member of the latter two and enjoyed the privileged life of North Korea's elite.

But he fled that life and all its relative comforts to cross the Tumen river into China, and eventually settled in South Korea, where he has just published a volume of poetry titled For 100 Won, My Daughter I Sell.

The title poem recounts the true story of a dying mother who sells her own daughter to a stranger for 100 won in a move she hopes will allow her child to survive—and then spends that small sum of money on a loaf of bread for the girl.

Jang’s poetry, published for the first time by the Internet news organization www.Chogabje.Com and broadcast by RFA’s Korean service, topped the best-seller list in South Korea last week, according to the Internet bookstore Interpark.

It’s also become a major topic in the South Korean media.

His work evokes the wrenching poverty and devastating famine that have killed so many North Koreans since the 1990s and forced thousands of others to risk their lives fleeing their native country. The title poem follows:

Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood
“For 100 won, my daughter I sell”
Heavy medallion of sorrow
A cardboard around her neck she had hung
Next to her young daughter
Exhausted, in the midst of the market she stood

A deaf-mute the mother
She gazed down at the ground, just ignoring
The curses the people all threw
As they glared
At the mother who sold
Her motherhood, her own flesh and blood

Her tears dried up
Though her daughter, upon learning
Her mother would perish of a deadly disease
Had buried her face in the mother’s long skirt
And bellowed, and cried
But the mother stood still
And her lips only quivered

Unable she was to give thanks to the soldier
Who slipped a hundred won into her hand
As he uttered
“It is your motherhood,
And not the daughter I’m buying”
She took the money, and ran

A mother she was,
And the 100 won she had taken
She spent on a loaf of wheat bread
Toward her daughter she ran
As fast as she could
And pressed the bread on the child’s lips
“Forgive me, my child”
In the midst of the market she stood
And she wailed.

Witness to the incident

Jang witnessed the incident he describes in the poem, he said. “It happened at a market in the Tongdaemun district of Pyongyang.  A lot of people witnessed that tragic scene and cried that day,” he said.

“As they watched her, she tried to appear unaffected in the beginning, but after she gave her daughter that mother’s parting gift, one last piece of bread, and as she wailed, all the onlookers broke into tears. Even now, my eyes still tear up when I think of that instant.”

The collection includes “Our Food,” depicting the grim image of a kitchen where thick tree bark is ground with a hammer, then mixed with caustic soda and boiled.

Another poem, “The Tastiest Thing in the World,” was written in remembrance of the poet’s younger brother, who said, before dying of starvation, that the finest food he had eaten was the food in one of his dreams. 

Jang Jin-sung believes that North Korea’s only hope is its people:

Tiny it is,
But the speckle of hope
Darkness supreme
Through the power of life
Firefly of my soul
The glimmer is a firefly.

Original reporting by Sookyung Lee for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Kwang-chool Lee. Interview and poems translated  by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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