North Korea has long been known as the hermit kingdom due to its self-isolation from the rest of the world, where life inside the state is guarded
North Korea has long been known as the hermit kingdom due to its self-isolation from the rest of the world, where life inside the state is guarded with the utmost secrecy. Much of what we know today originates from satellite images, reports from humanitarian organisations and details recounted by defectors. While Kim Jong-un’s state sporadically releases information and infrequently communicates with other nations, it’s known that details are often heavily censored and images are strategically staged to promote the state’s goals.
One of the most illuminating defectors’ accounts was penned by Jang Jin-sung, who fled the state in 2014 out of fear he would be punished for a treasonable offense.
His misdeed was allowing a friend to borrow a book that was part of the ‘100-Copy Collection’, which is a selection of Western literature closely guarded in a fortress-type stronghold.
Citizens are prohibited from reading material or watching media from outside the state – and anyone caught doing so is guilty of revisionism and can be punished, leading in some circumstances to the death penalty.
Before Jin-sung sought asylum in South Korea, he served as one of the nation’s poet laureates and was widely praised for his powerful writing within the nation’s Propaganda and Agitation department.
There he crafted bodies of work, under the guise of a writer from the South, who supported Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, and their regime.
In Jin-sung’s 2014 memoir ‘Dear Leader’, he detailed his first day inside Room 101 of Division 19 (poetry) – where he gained access to a world material forbidden to other citizens.
He explained: “As I set foot on the marble floor of the office, I almost turned back to leave: it was as if I had just blundered onto the scene of North Korea’s most terrifying crime – treason.
“The extent of which no one else in the country could begin to imagine or exaggerate.
“The forbidden materials so casually littering every surface in the room would have brought a death sentence in any other room in all of North Korea and anywhere else in the country.”
In contradiction of law within the state, the then-27-year-old noticed “enemy newspapers and books strewn carelessly about the office” along with a plaque from then-leader Kim Jong-il in 1998.
The note – which read “Inhabit Seoul, although you are in Pyongyang” – required the workers to “inhabit South Korea’s collective psyche” in order to “undermine and triumph over it”.
While outside media was allowed inside Office 101, it was closely guarded – with books only allowed out of the library for one day and novels for several, but never were either allowed to be taken home.
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Through the literature, Jin-sung gained a broader perspective of the outside world and their leaders’ lies over the generations.
One included the recognition that South Korea’s administration was not a “treasonous regime led by a sycophantic leader”, as had been taught to them.
The massive economic discrepancies between the two states became apparent too and that they were not a “puppet” for the US.
He wrote the pseudonym Kim Kyong-min and embodied the persona of an alter-ego who supported the Kim dynasty.
The letters, which also amplified anti-US sentiment, were then disseminated across the state to embolden the regime.
He added: “By my time, the UDF was using the experience and technique previously employed against South Korea’s citizens to conduct psychological offenses against our own people.
“The experience and techniques that had been learned were replicated in psychological operations aimed at North Koreans though, in other ways, we were still fighting a cultural war on two fronts.
“The North Korean people could never have imagined that all these apparently foreign works were produced by Office 101, in the very heart of their capital, Pyongyang.
“Isolated from the outside world, it’s not surprising that they believed that the people of the world, including South Koreans, admired our country’s strong leadership and many achievements.”
Jin-sung became increasingly disillusioned with the regime – despite being afforded additional rations and luxury items because of his success as a writer.
He later wrote: “The only power that will undermine the dictatorship of the mind is the realisation that it is possible not only for the regime to lie to its people, but that it has done so, deliberately and constantly.
“My people cannot be free until each of us acknowledges that the Revolutionary History of the Leader is not the true reality of North Korea.
“North Korea’s dictatorship of force over its people – its police-state system, the inescapable surveillance, the party’s invocation of the ‘Supreme Leader’s will’, overruling even the national constitution – cannot end while the dictatorship of the mind prevails.”