Jang Jin-sung’s new memoir, Dear Leader, is a remarkable story of struggle and survival, the tale of his desperate flight from North Korea in 2004. Jang Jin-sung, by the way, is a pen name. Given Jang’s unusual position of privilege, the book also presents a rare look inside the lives of the North Korean people and its leaders.
The average North Korean citizen received monthly, pre-measured food rations from the state until 1994, when the collapsed economy left people to fend for themselves. (Those in high levels of government and the military still received rations.)
Death from starvation grew so common that it led to the founding of the ominously but accurately named Corpse Division. Jang first saw them when, in a park, he noticed “a swarm of homeless people who looked to be either dead or dying. There were also men hovering over the bodies like flies, at times poking the inert figures with sticks.”
When he asked who they were, a friend replied, “They’re from the Corpse Division. They get rid of the corpses. All the other provinces [except Pyongyang] dispatch them to the main park near the station. All sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg, until they die.”
Jang saw the division in action. “The Corpse Division had a loaded rickshaw, on top of which some empty sacks were laid,” he writes. “Six bare and skeletal feet poked out from beneath these in oddly assorted directions. For the first split second, I did not understand what I was seeing, but as soon as I realized these empty sacks were human bodies, I grew nauseous.”
Water was scarce as well. The lower and middle classes “frequented the boiler rooms at foreign embassies, restaurants, or central state institutions. If you paid a bribe, the staff would allow you to have some of the hot water from the overflow pipe.”
Despite the desperation, woe to the North Korean who stole food. Executions, Jang learned, took place weekly. ….”Soldiers rushed in from all directions to surround the square, herding us into the center with the butts of their rifles,” writes Jang. The prisoner, who had stolen a bag of rice, was brought in wearing everyday clothes, which Jang took as a message to the townspeople that “any of them could be in this position.”
The man, “eyes full of terror” and “blood around his lips,” was brought into the center as “a military officer read out his judgment,” and a judge declared, “Death by firing squad!”
After this less-than-five-minute “trial,” a soldier shoved “a V-shaped spring” into the man’s mouth to “prevent him from speaking intelligibly,” so that he “could not utter rebellious sentiments” just before he was shot dead in front of the day’s shoppers.