Kim Jong Un is North Korea’s supreme, unquestioned, all-powerful dictator whose every word is revered, every demand is immediately granted, and every idea and whim is bestowed the most-favored status — right?
Not by a long shot, according to Jang Jin-Sung, a North Korean defector who offered insights to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour from what he said was a very close perspective.
Jang said he served Kim Jong Il as a primary disseminator of propaganda, and his all-access pass into the practically invisible goings-on behind the scenes in that introverted country pulled back the curtains and revealed many truths — including where the real political power lies.
Jang — author of a new book, “Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea” — told Amanpour that since Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek last year, the 31-year-old dictator “has become an orphan – not just in terms of family connections, but in terms of politics.”
“He’s a political orphan,” Jang said.
More than that, Jang said, Kim has no sway or access with the real source of power in North Korea — what’s known as the Organization and Guidance Department, or OGD. Jang described the OGD as a gigantic surveillance apparatus with roots in an “old boys’ network” — one that provided Kim Jong Il with many university friends who became political confidantes.
But his son enjoys no such network.
“Kim Jong Un may have friends in his Swiss school, but he has no one inside North Korea,” Jang told Amanpour.
In fact, since Kim theoretically took the reins after his father’s death in 2011, Jang said the new dictator isn’t much of one at all, adding that he’s relied on Kim Jong Il’s OGD guys to get things done. What’s worse for Kim, Jang explained, is that the OGD doesn’t respect him the way they did his father.
Jang offered other revelations about North Korea and the Kims.
“Until the day I met Kim Jong Il,” Jang told CNN, “I truly considered him divine, as someone more holy, like a sage — someone to be revered, someone who was better than us, who was sacrificing his own life for the people.”
In fact, Jang didn’t even believe Kim Jong Il used the toilet.
But after the dictator — who was an arts lover of sorts — got wind of Jang’s poetry, Kim Jong Il invited him to a private audience.
“The man I saw standing in front of me was a man, he was a human being. He was not a holy man; he was not a saint; he was not a god. He was a man just like me, who did use the toilet.”
Jang even confirmed that Kim Jong Il used shoes to (literally) elevate his stature — not exactly the stuff of the divine.
Another shattered myth for Jang was the long-held belief that the dictator’s “divinity” is passed to anyone with whom he comes into significant contact.
“You become immune from all prosecution, all harm,” Jang told CNN. “You’re protected by his divinity.”
But Jang wasn’t shielded from witnessing the after-effects of the brutal famine that overtook North Korea in the 1990s, claiming upwards of 3.5 million, according to the South Korean NGO Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugees. (Official North Korean numbers estimate that 220,000 people died.)
But visiting his hometown of Sairwon, Jang “saw the corpses in the station area just piling up and being taken away.”
Jang even witnessed a public execution.
“It is not classified as a punishment in response to a crime,” Jang told Amanpour. “It’s considered a method of moral education, of building up society’s standards of morality. So that’s why these executions happen in public places, such as market squares, where people watch it.”
“It becomes a theater.”
How, if ever, will North Koreans experience the kind of freedoms the west enjoys?
“In the past, there was only one thing to belong to, one thing that sustained you, one thing that kept your family going … loyalty to the cult of Kim,” Jang said. “But now people have realized finally, after the famine, that it is not loyalty that feeds them. It is money. It is work. It is owning something. It’s individual property that feeds one.”
It’s not even worth trying to convince the ruling class, he said. “Truth will set North Korea free. The people will set North Korea free. The erosion of control will set North Korea free, not engagement with the regime.”