Read an exclusive extract from Dear Leader, the memoir from former North Korean propagandist, Jang Jin-Sung, detailing his escape from the country. Sign up to the Think Smarter newsletter for a chance to win the Think Smarter month reading list.
The next morning, we left the guard post with a letter from the second lieutenant addressed to Seo Jung-hwan. A group of soldiers waved goodbye and we reciprocated awkwardly. As soon as we were out of their sight, we high-fived each other and excitedly recounted moments from the night before, albeit in a low voice. But our footsteps soon turned heavy. The border area was much more tightly controlled and tense than the tranquil countryside we had imagined from Pyongyang.
Young-min spoke first. ‘Should we go home?’
Facing each other, we slumped down onto a disused section of railway track that stretched along the Tumen River.
‘It’s too late for that now,’ I reasoned. ‘We’ve missed too many days of work already and they’ve probably put out a search warrant for us.
You know the Party. We can’t go back.’
‘Then how do we cross?’
It was as if he wanted me to admit defeat on our behalf. Wearily, I looked at our surroundings. In the silence it seemed that we were the only people left on earth. The hills and river were white, covered with snow. Somewhere far away, a whistle blew three times – perhaps another arrest. Just over the river, on the other side of the border, we could hear the lowing of an ox. The sky seemed exceedingly blue and a bird flitted across that borderless space. We could see over the river, but we were helpless to cross it. Young-min spoke again. ‘We’ve come all the way here from Pyongyang. Just across this river – just there – is China. It’s right in front of us. How on earth do we cross?’
As he’d pointed out, nothing much lay between us and China, and each side of the border looked alike. Our lands were covered with snow, and so were theirs; except that their mountains were covered with trees like balls of cotton, and ours were sheer and bare. In the summer, our hills would be hellish red and theirs green with foliage. To me, this confirmed that we had every reason to cross the river.
‘Let’s cross, now!’ I was surprised by my own words. Until this moment, I had been focused on moving under cover of night. ‘Now’s the time – the soldiers keep watch at night, but now, it’s bright as day, and we can see them before they see us. Let’s cross!’ As if we had planned it, I glanced round on the North Korean side and Young-min checked the Chinese side. ‘No one’s around,’ he said.
‘Should we stand up?’
Although we spoke with confidence, neither of us stood up. What frightened us more than anything was that neither of us had the courage to act. We breathed deeply, and as our humiliating weakness of mind was laid bare, it was also cathartic. The silence recharged our resolve, and we reached for each other’s hands to feel the heat of our bodies. We had walked to the edge of this cliff together, and would jump together.
We counted in unison.
We leaped up and started sprinting across the frozen Tumen River. My heart pounded with every step, and the ice bellowed under our feet. Over ten metres, twenty metres? Someone started yelling.
‘Hey! Get those bastards!’
I turned to look towards the noise. A group of soldiers stood with their rifles aimed. I saw the barrel, and heard the rifle cock. The roof of my skull seared with pain, where I knew the bullet would enter. I screamed but could not hear my own voice.
Dear Leader, Jang Jin-Sung, (Rider) is out in paperback on 5th February 2015.
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