Could this be the Biggest Publishing Event of 2014?


The London publishing scene is abuzz with the news that Rider publishing has acquired the rights to Crossing the Border- the memoirs of North Korean defector Jang Jin-sung.

Following the launch of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, a book which both horrified and fascinated its readers in equal measure,  as well as recent Pulitzer Prize winner ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’, publishers have been on the lookout for more voices from North Korea. Jang Jin-sung’s work certainly sounds as though it will be an incredibly fascinating contribution to the relatively meagre collection of accounts from the closed Communist state available in the west. Jin-sung was inspired by the London Olympics to tell his story to the west, commenting that the event “Was the turning point for me of looking internationally and of the power of literature to tell the truth. NK (sic) may have nuclear weapons, but we have the media.”

What makes Jang Jin-sung’s work particularly intriguing is the fact that he actually enjoyed a relatively elite position in North Korean society, described as a ‘Court Poet’ to Kim Jong-il. This will be one of the first verbatim accounts of the inner workings of the Soviet nation’s circle of power, and will be almost unique in its genre. According to his translator, “The original Korean book is titled ‘Crossing the river with poetry in my heart’ – Jang escaped with no possessions but the manuscript of his poetry collection depicting life in North Korea. In this way, his poems are the memories he brought with him out of the country. They are the record of reality through the individual’s eyes, written in a country where no record of reality may be made except through the ruling party’s eyes. Parts of the book are a rendition in prose of snapshots he captured with his poetry in North Korea; if the poetry is snapshots, the memoir is a movie.”

Jang’s agent states that, “Jang was born into a bloodline of impeccable revolutionary credentials, he trained as a classical pianist before studying literature at Kim Il-sung University. He went on to join the Central Committee of the North Korean Writers’ Union and worked in the Ministry of Reunification, where he was responsible for creating and disseminating propaganda throughout both North and South Korea. During one period, he helped develop the founding myth of North Korea as having begun on 15 April, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic in the west and the rising of the sun – Kim Il-sung – in the east.”

During one period, he helped develop the founding myth of North Korea as having begun on 15 April, 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic in the west and the rising of the sun – Kim Il-sung – in the east

In fact, so well ensconced was Jin-sung in the upper echelons of North Korea, that he met Kim Jong-il on two occasions. The leader gifted him and $11,000 gold Rolex, as well as “sacred immunity” from any form of persecution without express permission of the country’s highest leaders. Jin-sung actually witnessed the revered dictator’s tears during one meeting, explainging, “We sat at a performance together, and he kept on crying while he watched it. I felt his tears represented his yearning to become a human being, to become an ordinary person.”

However, there came a point when this apparently devoted Party member decided it would be worth risking death to run away from it all. Unable to justify his own gold plated lifestyle with the daily human suffering surrounding him, Jang Jin-sung ultimately made his escape from North Korea by crossing the Tumen River into China in 2004. Although many North Koreans struggle to settle in the more prosperous job, finding themselves overwhelmed and their qualifications outdated and worthless, Jin-sung appears to have settled in relatively well. He found work at the National Security Research Institute and eventually published his first work, which recalls the horrors of his former home. Titled, I Am Selling My Daughter for 100 Won, the book sold over 80,000 copies. He has gone on to become the Editor-in-Chief New Focus, “the leading website on North Korea by north Koreans in exile.”

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