Dictatorship of the mind: a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim il-Sung on a block in Pyongyang. Photo: Damir Sagoli: Reuters
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Jang Jin-sung: I became poet laureate to Kim Jong-il

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes under the table.

When I was a child, I didn’t read. In all honesty, no story was as exciting as the fairy tales my mother told my siblings and me. A story that captivated my childhood imagination more than anything else was about a magic cudgel that granted any wish, as long as you wished with a good heart; I could daydream about holding that omni­potent object in my hand and forget about everything else. The early years of school in North Korea could offer nothing but the narrative of the Supreme Leader’s childhood, which all North Korean children learned according to their age group, growing up alongside him. The Revolutionary History of the Leader Kim Il-sung did not captivate me as the magic cudgel did, and I performed poorly at school.

However, as I progressed through school, the demands of achieving good grades grew stronger and I had no choice but to immerse myself, like everyone else, in the Supreme Leader. My mother tongue – the one that I learned to read write, think in and understand the world through – was the language of our Revolutionary History. Even when I turned to novels or poetry, whatever book I opened, it was the same: the Korean language served to tell the story of two protagonists alone, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even “everyday heroes” were unrealistic people, swearing absolute loyalty only to the Supreme Leader and the Workers’ Party, and they were not people I wanted ever to resemble.

I had the rare privilege to study western music from the age of seven – cassettes of Dvorák were smuggled in from China by my piano teacher – and I could not find any literature that spoke to me in a way that approached what I experienced through this thrilling and complex music. But what gave me aspirations to become a writer was the poetry of Byron. In North Korea, gaining access to any foreign culture is a crime of “revisionism”, but there is a “hundred copy collection” (each book limited to a hundred copies) available to the elite, so that they might receive a cultural grounding to help them carry out their jobs as leaders, diplomats and propagandists. I don’t know how one of these limited editions of Byron’s works ended up in my father’s personal bookcase, but that is where, aged 15, I found it. For the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I read a book. The words contained emotion as a melody and the plots of the poems were like the resonance of an orchestra in a hall. I was relearning my own language from a foreign book.

In the strict apartheid of North Korea, the use of language is tightly controlled across different classes of people. Above all, the language used for reference to the Supreme Leader is set apart in its grammar and vocabulary. Kim Il-sung is always “great”, and “greatness” must always belong to the Supreme Leader alone; but Byron taught me that the word could be used to describe any one of us, and that every one of us could dare to partake in such qualities. I wanted to become Byron, not only as a writer, but also as a man who might consider risking his life for an ordinary beloved – and not just for the Supreme Leader. I grew self-righteous, gloating at the thought that all the North Korean writers before me who had no access to Byron were like frogs in a well.

There could exist no such novel, poetry or story created by a North Korean writer. All forms of culture remain under the law of Kim Jong-il’s “Juche Art Theory”, which dictates that all North Korean literature must be in the style of “socialist realism”, with “socialist” denoting not an ideology, but an interpretation of “reality” dictated by the regime: a reality in which the Supreme Leader’s Revolutionary History must be the only truth. The world may talk about the counterfeiting of dollar bills by the regime for the sake of maintaining its grip on power, but this regime has set up a more invidious system for the purpose of counterfeiting the thoughts of its people. This not merely influences or interferes with their most intimate thoughts, but enforces a state policy to fabricate them from conception to expression, from each individual to the consciousness of the nation.

As an employee of the United Front Department (UFD), I witnessed this project at first hand. The UFD is a hybrid entity for policymaking, espionage and “engagement” with the outside world that functions as a controlling body to project and reflect perceptions of North Korea. I worked in Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101. Despite the uncanny and unintended echo of Orwell’s Room 101, this office was, ironically, so named precisely in order to avoid any hint of the nature of our work. When it was first set up, the department specialised in conducting psychological warfare operations against the South through cultural media such as the press, literary arts, music and film. After the 1970s, it strove particularly to amplify anti-American sentiment and foster pro-North tendencies among the South Korean population, exploiting the democratic resistance movements that had risen against the then military dictatorship.

My task, like all other writers in the system, was to express an institutional line, not an individual message. No writer in North Korea is permitted to act beyond a bureaucratic affiliation that controls the process – from the setting of the initial guidelines for each work to the granting of permission for publication – through strict monitoring, evaluation and surveillance. Our main task was to transform ourselves into South Korean poets who supported Kim Jong-il. My South Korean pseudonym was Kim Kyong-min. This is the only way to earn recognition as a writer in North Korea: under a name that is not your own.

Elsewhere in the world and throughout history, the subject of literature has included the human condition. But under the suffocating constraints of North Korean surveillance, where the only concerns permitted in artistic expression are those of the Supreme Leader, I could not produce any writing that allowed me to feel I was accomplishing anything other than a bureaucratic task. Despite this, my colleagues in the propaganda departments envied me. Because I worked under an assumed South Korean identity, I did have some licence to experiment with straying from the legal bounds of North Korean art – at least in the exercise of style. This provided the “freedom” in which I composed my work; which, paradoxically, stood out from writing by my more careful and devout peers and led to my being admitted into Kim Jong-il’s inner circle.

In December 1998 I was given the job of writing an epic poem that would promote the notion that the North Korean policy of songun – the project to unify the entire Korean Peninsula through the superior might of our military force – had been formulated to protect South Korea. My poem, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, was written in the voice of a South Korean poet who, recalling a massacre of activists in his own country, visits Pyongyang and finds protection and peace there. It so pleased the Supreme Leader that it was distributed throughout the nation and, in 1999, aged 28, I was made one of his six poet laureates.

Becoming one of the “Admitted” invol­ved attending a dinner with Kim Jong-il, who played with his white Maltese puppy and kicked off his shoes (high-heeled, with an inner platform at least six centimetres high) under the table. That night changed the course of my life in a way that winning the lottery might do in a capitalist nation; but, more importantly, it granted me immunity. Not even the highest authorities in the DPRK could investigate, prosecute or harm one of the Admitted.

Unless, that is, they committed treason – which I did. I lent a friend a restricted book, the contents of which included a biography of both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il written by a South Korean academic. In discussing the infidelity and violent purges in the Kim family, this book starkly contradicted the official Revolutionary History. When the authorities found out about my transgression I had no choice but to escape to South Korea.

I know that no dictatorship can be successful merely by force. A dictator may use a form of religious cult to demand an unquestioning and heartfelt obedience from each individual, or a myth of racial superiority to bind the loyalty of many to one selfish cause. North Korea is no exception in the modern history of totalitarianism. There are the brutal political camps that physically shut away the lives of North Korean people; but there is also a dictatorship of the mind, the political prison where thought and expression are stifled. 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.

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.

“Dear Leader” by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, is published by Rider Books (£20)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood