Jang Jin-Sung is the is the pseudonym of a former North Korean propaganda poet and government official who defected to South Korea in 2004. He currently runs the North Korean defectors’ magazine, New Focus, which aims to report on North Korean news without North Korean media restrictions.
What are the standards for a good propaganda poem?
The only criteria for a propaganda poem are how much you praise the Leader and how much the poem evokes admiration from readers. What matters most is what the Supreme Leader thinks of it. Although it is a bureaucratic and complicated process, it doesn’t matter if everyone thinks the poem is awful as long as the Supreme Leader thinks it’s good. Conversely, it doesn’t matter if everyone thinks the poem is great if the Supreme Leader thinks it is bad.
What do you think has allowed the North Korean regime to maintain its power?
More than anything, the North Korean leadership remains in power because it rewards people for submitting to the leadership and praising the Supreme Leader. The people at the top are there not because they are powerful, but because they gave up power and their way of thinking in order to reach their positions. The only way to reach the top is to submit to the system where you will get fed and rewarded for showing your loyalty.
Why do people at the top of North Korea’s political hierarchy work to maintain the personality cult if they know it is a lie?
The people at the top rationalize their loyalty to the Supreme Leadership despite knowing it’s a lie for one primary reason: In the past, this was because they wanted to maintain the image of Kim Jong-il. Today, it’s about mutual survival; the people at the top are in a good place by keeping the cult going, and all of them lose everything if it fails.
How has the North Korean Supreme Leadership been justified historically? Has this justification changed over time?
Kim Jong-il was the Supreme Leader because he had the skills to put the system into place and maintain the propaganda. With [his son] Kim Jong-un, it is not his own leadership qualities that put him there; he inherited the system. The cult today feels less valid because Kim Jong-un does not have the skills his father possessed. This poses a serious existential threat to the country. Although Kim Jong-un lacks the connections, experience, and capabilities to lead, the regime still attempts to maintain the image of him as all-powerful by showing how he executes people. They demonstrate how he brutalizes people in order to validate his power.
How would you assess the effectiveness of Western policy in North Korea?
The policies [of Western governments] have failed because Western leaders have been unable to see the North Korean leadership for what it is: a political construction. The notion that you can only be North Korean if you declare that the Supreme Leader is divine does not have historical or cultural roots. As long as politicians think that this brand of North Korea is the only one that exists, they’re only engaging with the regime’s claim of what their culture is…Until people begin to recognize that there is a very concrete political bureaucracy producing the personality cult, not some collective identity, sanctions will be ineffective.