By Mick Krever, CNN
Who controls the Hermit Kingdom?
According to a North Korean defector – a former regime insider who was one of Kim Jong Il’s favorite poet-propagandists – it is not the 31-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un.
“When Kim Jong Il died and Kim Jong Un succeeded him, people saw the transfer of power from father to son,” Jang Jin-Sung told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in London. “What they did not see also was what happened to the apparatus of the totalitarian system that supported the rule of Kim Jong Il.”
That apparatus, Jang said, is the Organization and Guidance Department, or OGD – it was Kim Jong Il’s education as he rose through the ranks, and was full of his university friends.
It is an “old-boy’s network” made into a massive surveillance organization.
“Kim Jong Il had the OGD as his old boys' network,” Jang told Amanpour. “Kim Jong-un may have friends in his Swiss school, but he has no one inside North Korea.”
Jang is the author of a new book, "Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – A Look Inside North Korea."
“After the execution of Jang Song Thaek [Kim Jong Un’s uncle], he has become an orphan – not just in terms of family connections, but in terms of politics.”
“He's a political orphan.”
Precious little is known about Kim Jong Un, who inherited the leadership of North Korea after his father’s death in 2011.
Since that time, Jang said, Kim Jong Un has had to rely on his father’s “old-boys network” to get anything done.
But because that group does not respect the younger Kim, who was educated in Switzerland, the way it did his father, Kim Jong Un has become nothing more than the symbolic head of North Korea.
“Until the day I met Kim Jong Il,” Jang says, “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.”
So effective was the regime propaganda machine, he told Amanpour, that he did not even believe that Kim the elder used the toilet.
But Jang, a poet, caught the dictator’s eye, and was invited for a private audience with him.
“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.”
In propaganda, Kim had used “perfectly composed, flowery language,” Jang said, and was deeply reverential of “the people.”
“But when I met him, he just spoke in slang like in a kind of commanding colloquial, working-class slang, even to his most senior men.”
“And that was shocking to me.”
He even, Jang told Amanpour, wore shoes to boost his height.
Shattering the myth
Once a North Korean has been admitted into the dictator’s inner circle, Jang said – “after having spent more than twenty minutes with him behind closed doors, at his personal request” – the leader’s “divinity” gets transferred onto that person.
“You become immune from all prosecution, all harm. You’re protected by his divinity.”
From that highest perch of North Korean society, Jang could clearly see for the first time all the lies he had been told.
The truth became even starker when he went back to visit his hometown of Sairwon, in the southwest of the country.
“That was when I really witnessed the devastating effects of the famine. That's where I saw the corpses in the station area just piling up and being taken away.”
As many as 3.5 million people are estimated to have died during North Korea's severe famine of the 1990s, 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.)
It is also, he told Amanpour, where he saw a public execution.
“It is not classified as a punishment in response to a crime. 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.”
A decade ago Jang decided to flee the country. Not even his family knew he was planning to leave.
Had he told them, he told Amanpour, their innocence would have been compromised, and they would have been vulnerable to the wrath of the state security service.
Cracking the regime
The most closed country on earth continues to fascinate the world, and among the most discussed questions is if, and how, the brutal regime could fall.
“Currently, there are two classes in North Korea locked in battle with each other,” Jang said.
“One I will call the loyal class. This is the class that is invested, that has a stake in this continuation of the status quo, of oppression and surveillance and control.”
“The other class are the market classes,” he said. “Their livelihoods are not sustained by the system, but actually oppressed by it.”
Earlier this year, a PBS Frontline documentary featured stunning footage of ordinary North Koreans using free enterprise and challenging regime security officers.
North Koreans, the documentary showed, are increasingly exposed to the outside world, through smuggled DVDs and USB sticks containing Western and South Korean movies and TV shows.
“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.”
“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.”
“So loyalty to Kim Il Sung” – Kim Jong Un’s grandfather – “has been trumped by, let's say, the portrait of Washington on a U.S. dollar note.”
Change in North Korea will not come, Jang said, by negotiating with the regime. It will come through knowledge.
“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.”