SEOUL - 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
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 ($0.70 US cents) 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 Radio Free Asia's Korean service, topped the
best-seller list in South Korea last week, according to the Internet bookstore
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:
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 motherís 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 motherís 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
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:
But the speckle of hope
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
Copyright (c) 2005, Radio Free Asia . Reprinted with the permission of
Radio Free Asia