– You were the political refinement revolution department reporter for the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). This must have required favorable songbun, or political and family background.
It is indeed true that to be assigned to that department requires a solid political and family background. I was actually born in a village called Yongpyong (within Helong) located in Jilin Province, China. I lived there until I was seventeen, before moving to North Korea in 1962. I was surprised to find out that I was considered ‘blue blooded’ compared to the normal residents in the North. My grandfather was a platoon leader in the Korean independence army unit led by Hong Beom Do and also participated in the anti-Japanese partisan movement. Some of my other ancestors also participated in crucial battles, thus earning my family a good political and class evaluation in the eyes of the regime.
Due to my background, I enlisted in the prestigious escort bureau during my military service and was employed by KCNA as a political refinement revolution department reporter after graduating from Kim Il Sung University. The department specialized in spreading Kim Il Sung propaganda and I worked in that department for 10 years before being involved in producing television dramas for KCNA. I worked for more than 20 years for KCNA before defecting to the South in 1996.
-You have a really interesting resume, did it help in authoring this book? Was there a special motivation behind writing it?
North Korea claims all defectors are traitors, and I wanted to make a strong argument against that, revealing the reasons behind my choice to leave North Korea after having devoted most of my life to being a loyal follower of the ‘socialist system.’ I wanted to show that the true traitors were Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. My family were devoted followers of the socialist system, however Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il betrayed the system and chose the path of misanthropy (contempt for humanity). I defected as I could not bear living in such conditions and wanted to show the people of both North and South Korea the true nature of the present North Korean regime.
-The book is written much as a non-fiction novel. How much of the book is based on fact?
Although I did take a little literary license in making the book more interesting to the readers, more than 80% of the content is true. In particular, how Kim Il Sung ordered the murders of numerous people on his path to establishing his totalitarian regime is absolutely true. His cruel destruction of the Nam-ro party connected to Park Hyun Yong, religious intolerance and purges that lead to his firm establishment as a totalitarian leader are based on historical fact. Hence one can only conclude that his ideology and dictatorship was built in a sea of blood.
-There are many vivid descriptions of internal struggles in North Korea to wrest authority and power.
How did you gather such detailed information?
Just as it is in the South, all secrets are revealed at the top echelon. I was considered a level 4 reporter and a level 3 producer, which is quite a high level in North Korea, allowing access to a great deal of classified information. I was not allowed to share such information with anyone when I was in the North, but I have shared all the information through this book.
Another fact that I want to stress is that while working as a political refinement revolution department reporter, there were many more negative aspects to Kim Il Sung than the information I could use as propaganda to proclaim his “greatness.” This non-fiction novel that I have written contains all the information I have gathered during my time with the KCNA, and from high-ranking members of the party, system and military officials that have defected, as well as information from numerous North Korea experts.
-Do you have any personal relations to the hero of the book Jang Song Thaek?
Yes I have actually met him before. Although I cannot claim to have had close relations with him, we shared meals and conversations for about a week in 1977 when we met in Sunchon, North Pyongan Province. I felt a strong admiration for him after sharing many intimate conversations. We are also from the same university, although he graduated 8 years before I did because he did not have to serve in the army. I was a philosophy major while he read economics. I depicted him as a history major in the novel to make it more interesting. Kim Jong Il’s younger sister Kim Kyong Hui was also an economics major at the same university.
-Why did you depict him as being magnanimous yet not being careful enough at times?
That is how I actually remember him. During the week that we were together, I found him to be fun-loving and able to hold his drink well, but not careful at times. He was good-looking and had a magnanimous nature, and also played the harmonium (pump organ) very well. As such he was very popular with the ladies.
-Another interesting aspect of the book was the romance between Jang Song Thaek and Kim Kyong Hui.
While I had to dramatize certain parts to make the plot more interesting, it is true that even the daughter of the “great leader” fell under his charm and charisma. So they actually married, as we had some liberty in choosing our marriage partners back then. However, as in the novel, Kim Jong Il did not take favorably to having Jang Song Thaek as a brother-in-law and actually obstructed and objected to their romance.
-The novel also reveals that North Korea became a regime that focused on rank and having the right family identity, rather than the original propaganda of being a class-free society after the 25th of May, 1967. What can you tell us about that?
The 25 of May, 1967 was indeed very politically significant. The National Council announced the concluded statements made during the 15th session on that day. The statements were a veiled purge of Park Kum Chul and other members of the Kapsan faction, claiming that they harbored capitalistic, revisionism and feudal Confucianism ideologies. Although Kim Il Sung was proclaimed to be the dictator during the early years of the regime, some democratic vestiges still remained in the party. After this purge, he was firmly established as the totalitarian dictator and the last traces of democracy were stamped out, with all issues being determined by Kim Il Sung.
-Towards the end of 1980, socialist countries were overthrown with China and Vietnam preventing a revolution by introducing economic reforms. So your novel depicts Kim Jong Il as being aware of the need for reforms but was unable to do so?
To put it simply, Kim Jong Il had to shoulder the burden of capitalizing on his father’s achievements to ensure a smooth hereditary succession. Although he was aware that most of his father’s achievements were forged, he had to add further prominence to them as there were many surviving members of the Manchu anti-Japanese partisan movement who fought alongside his father. Furthermore, there were members that actually outranked his father during the anti-Japanese movement who could have been tempted to muscle in on the dictatorship as they had contributed more than Kim Il Sung to establishing the North Korean regime. As Kim Jong Il had contributed almost nothing in comparison, he was unable to introduce any reforms. In fact, he had to lend further prominence to his father’s achievements as any reformation would reveal all of Kim Il Sung’s achievements to be lies, which would jeopardize his own authority as a hereditary leader.
-The sudden execution of Jang Song Thaek in 2013 was a huge shock. While the novel depicts his execution as a result of proclaiming the need for reforms, was he actually involved in any revolutionary movement for reforms?
Yes he actually was. After the mass starvation in late 1990, North Korea’s economy looked to be a lost cause and he was assigned by Kim Jong Il to look into improving the economic situation. He presented his reforms on the 1st of July, 2002, where he stressed the need to develop the Hwanggumpyong islands. However, he faced severe obstacles due to adverse relations with China and internal strife with the Korean Workers’ Party Organization Guidance Department [OGD]. No matter how influential he was, no individual could go up against the OGD.
-You have personally witnessed the purges and intense internal conflicts occurring during the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il regimes. How do you feel about the purges and factional strife in North Korea under Kim Jong Un’s regime?
There seems to be no difference from the past. Although the 33-year-old Kim Jung Un proclaims his ‘love’ for the people and acts as the supreme leader, the OGD is pulling the strings. They are the ones who make all the plans for operations and purges. Although North Korea claims that Kim Jung Un makes all the decisions, the actual scope of all the decisions made is determined by the OGD. There have been many more purges even after the execution of Jang Song Thaek, and although it may be reported that those executions and purges are due to falling out of favor with Kim Jong Un, the final decisions lie with the OGD. They control the national party and also the political scene in North Korea.
-There has been much speculation that the present regime is in danger due to the acute increase
in defections. What is your personal opinion?
I find it hard to agree with such speculation. Although the number of defectors may increase sharply, North Korea’s regime will not fall lightly. As long as the OGD exists, the regime will continue to survive. Even if there are any indications of danger toward the regime emerging, they will nip it in the bud. Jang Song Thaek’s execution was orchestrated by the organization, because they knew that any reforms would endanger the regime.