War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea


The end came about by accident. Jang had the rare privilege of being allowed to read South Korean newspapers and magazines, which he had to sign out from the library at the intelligence agency headquarters. Sometimes he gave them to a friend to read. One day in January 2004 the friend, whose father was a high-ranking police chief, accidentally left his bag containing the magazines, which had been lent to him illegally, on Pyongyang's short subway. On the same day, the friends decided to flee the country, convinced that they would be put on trial for treason.

The gripping story of their escape will be published next year in English by Random House, in a book called "Crossing the Border." During the meeting at the Koreana Hotal, Jang talks for three hours without even coming to the point of his arrival in South Korea. He drinks one cup of coffee after the next and cracks his knuckles in the pauses, while the interpreter speaks. "On Dec. 17, 2004," he says, "I was finally a free man."

In the preceding months, he was put through the wringer by the South Korean intelligence. First he was interrogated at length for two weeks, to rule out the possibility that he was a North Korean mole, and then he was subjected to further questioning for six months while under house arrest in a fenced-off villa. The south did not welcome him with open arms, like a lost son or brother. Living in freedom was difficult at first, he says. He was disgusted by the materialism and superficiality of the south.

Jang worked as an academic in the ensuing years, and he eventually concluded that the South Koreans simply ignore the north instead of doing it the favor of being afraid of it. He still hasn't figured out whether this is the result of some clever insight or pure ignorance. His students sometimes seem programmed to him, says Jang, lacking the culture to lead an autonomous life.

"When I say to them: 'I risked my life for freedom, while you get it for free,' they pretend to be moved, but in reality they are not moved at all." Jang has turned his attention to his former country, once again. His online newspaper New Focus listens in on the north and is praised for the quality of the information it provides. The New York Times printed an op-ed piece by Jang a few days ago, and he sells articles to the British newspaper The Guardian. Jang seems to be the kind of person who would know whether a new Korean war is brewing. "Kim Jong Un is the one who should be the most concerned about war, because it would mean the collapse of his country." But what if he isn't concerned? Jang cracks his knuckles. "Then it's a problem."

Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the problem in Beijing on the Wednesday before last. His speech was briefly mentioned in South Korean newspapers and covered extensively in the American media. General Dempsey, who traveled to Asia specifically to address the Korean crisis, is the highest-ranking US general ever to have visited China. "The risk of miscalculation is higher and I think the risk of escalation is higher," Dempsey said. North Korea is "in a period of prolonged provocation rather than cyclical provocation," he added. "They are on a path that will certainly increase risk in the region."

Dangerously Quick to Take Offense

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