The great dystopian science fiction novels of the 20th Century were written from the perspective of elite totalitarian functionaries who become hunted victims of the regimes they once loyally served: Rubashov, the ageing Marxist of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Bernard, the disillusioned Alpha Plus of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, D-503, the chief engineer of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. In all cases, the real core of the book unfolds within the protagonists’ liberated minds, as they unwind the hideous perversions of intellect that are required to sustain totalitarian mythologies.

The great archetype of the genre is Winston Smith, from George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell made the inspired decision to employ Smith as an editor at the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), where he retroactively edits old newspaper articles to ensure that they conform to the latest revisionist diktats emitted by Oceania’s all-controlling government. The book’s opening chapters provide a sketchbook of the complex propaganda cult that surrounds Big Brother, the God-like figurehead who is presented to citizens as a stern but benevolent overlord. The similarities to the USSR under Stalin were unmistakable. Yet there also was an element of satire in Orwell’s book: Most readers can scarcely believe that thinking human beings could be reduced to the status of brainwashed slaves in such a complete way.

But they can. And the proof of it is modern North Korea, the only truly totalitarian society that remains on the face of the planet. A newly translated book by Jang Jin-Sung, Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea, provides the most fascinating insider’s report on the workings of Pyongyang’s own ministry of “truth” ever translated into English.

As an anonymous young artist growing up in 1990s-era Pyongyang, Jang wrote a sycophantic poem singing the praises of then-leader Kim Jong-il, which went as follows:

So this is the Gun
that in the hands of an inferior man
can only commit murder,
but when wielded by a great man,
can overcome anything.
As history has shown,
war and carnage belong
to the weak.
General Kim Jong-il,
the General alone,
is Lord of the Gun,
Lord of Justice,
Lord of Peace,
Lord of Unification.
Ah, the true leader of the Korean people!

The poem was hardly original: Every piece of “art” in North Korea conforms to this same treacly, propagandistic theme. But something about it caught the eye of Kim Jong-il himself. As a result, Jang’s life changed overnight. He became one of the “Admitted,” the hallowed few who were permitted to bask in Kim’s physical presence. Jang became the envy of everyone he knew. Unlike ordinary folk in the countryside, who were boiling grass to feed their children, he began receiving regular deliveries of food stolen by the government from foreign food-aid shipments. (Jang’s detailed description of North Korea’s food-delivery pecking order — according to which Central Party cadres dine on imported delicacies while starving peasants are left to “self-sufficiency” — is straight out of another Orwell classic, Animal Farm. Who can forget when the pigs set the tone for their purportedly classless animal society by stealing the fresh milk in Chapter 2?)

From dawn to dusk, Jang’s job was to create pretty-sounding state propaganda for Section 5 (Literature), Division (19) (Poetry) of Office 101 of the Workers’ Party’s United Front Department. As with the fictional Winston Smith, much of Jang’s duties involved creating fake newspaper articles. North Korea is a land of starvation. Nevertheless, inhabitants are taught from birth that they are the luckiest people in the world, and that the rest of the planet is envious of their prosperity. To back up this ludicrous myth, the state publishes bogus media reports, purportedly written by foreign writers, heaping praise on Pyongyang’s enlightened leadership.

The job was cushy by North Korean standards, but it came with deadly risks: Use the wrong word or metaphor in a poem or propaganda report, and a poet can be sent off to the gulag. Jang recounts one amazing staff meeting in which his colleagues debated long and hard about whether they should consider using the image of Kim being moved to tears by his love for North Korea. Some members of the committee worried that any lachrymose motif might promote “pessimism” among North Koreans. The debate is settled when a supervisor notes that “Kim Chul, one of our nation’s three canonical poets, employed the world ‘dew’ to refer euphemistically to the Leader’s tears. For this mistake, he was banished to the countryside for 10 years.”

All of this was unfolding during the great North Korean food shortages of the 1990s, when families were selling children for bread, and tales of cannibalism were not uncommon. Yet the official propaganda line from Pyongyang continued to be upbeat. The dominant slogan, Jang reports, was “The Journey is Hard but Let Us Go Forth in Laughter.” And amazingly, many North Koreans parroted it, believing that all would be well if they trusted in the genius of North Korea’s benevolent leadership. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, and North Korean media aired images of middle-aged people weeping hysterically in the streets of Pyongyang, most Western observers assumed the whole thing was staged. But given the extent of nation’s collective brainwashing, the reactions likely were genuine.

Because Jang was required to write in a foreign style, he was one of the few people in the country permitted to read South Korean newspapers. Jang was shocked to learn that everything he’d learned as a child was a lie — and that South Korea was a thriving democracy many times more rich than its northern counterpart. More shocking still, he learned, writers in South Korean newspapers were permitted to criticize the government, a capital offense in North Korea. (In fact, everything in North Korea is a capital offense, as a sampling of public posters described in the book attests: “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!” “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!” “Death by Firing Squad To Those Who Gossip!”)

In 1984, it is Winston Smith’s love of Julia that truly demolishes his veneration of Big Brother. Once someone gives all of his heart to another person, Orwell understood, that love and the simple happiness it brings become the measure of all things; the lover is no longer able to throw himself into the all-consuming leadership cult that is the glue of totalitarian societies. North Korea is the same. One of the most fascinating episodes in the book comes after Jang has made his initial escape into China, where he meets two lovers who refer to one another casually as fiancé and fiancée. The words boggle Jang’s mind — there are no such terms used commonly in North Korean society, for they would serve to promote the dangerous idea that some human being in one’s private life may be more emotionally precious than Dear Leader himself. Even Jang’s youthful adoration of the music of Dvořák and the poems of Lord Byron feel treasonous, as it dilutes his fealty to Kim.

The term “personality cult” — which is thrown around in the West casually to describe everyone from Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin — does not even begin to describe the treatment of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. (The current leader is Kim Jong-un, son of Kim Jong-il, who himself is son of founding communist patriarch Kim Il-sung.) Dozens of train stations, scattered across the country, are reserved for the leader’s personal use. The Guards Command, a special division of the military responsible for the leader’s protection, comprises about 100,000 troops. Bizarre rules attend every meeting with “the General” (as he is known in internal communications) — including one requiring subordinates never to look into his eyes. Instead, the decorum is to look at the secondbutton down on his uniform jacket.

The country also has a “Foundational Sciences Institute,” where 3,000 workers prepare “medicines and dishes specifically designed to extend the leader’s longevity.” (This must be a busy time: Kim is said to suffer from serious medical problems, and until this week had been absent from official events since early September.) Another large government agency is tasked with combing the country’s middle schools to find attractive 13-year old girls who are groomed to become the leader’s mistresses. Their “training” is complete by age 17, and they are discarded at age 24 — usually by being married off to someone within the leader’s inner circle.

Over time, the Kims have eroded North Koreans’ sense of any historical or ethnic existence independent of their servitude to the ruling family. The country’s calendar takes 1912 (when Kim Il-Sung was born) as its Year Zero. The country’s official creed is not communism, but “Kimilsungism.” Koreans are not Koreans, but instead “Kim Il-Sung’s People.” And in a bizarre adaptation of Christian last rites, North Korean party cadres on their deathbed are asked to sign one last attestation to their love of the country’s leader, to ensure the nation that their veneration of the Kim dynasty will continue beyond the grave. Like all nominally secular communist regimes, North Korea hasn’t so much banned religion as co-opted it.

When Jang actually met Kim Jong-il, he expected a robust demi-god with sun rays bursting from the back of his head. Instead, he encountered a short, eccentric, doddering, pot-bellied man who spent much of his time playing with a tiny dog. “As I stand bent double at the waist in a deep bow, my eyes cast down … I can see [Kim’s] feet under the tablecloth,” Jang writes. “He has taken off his shoes. Even the General suffers from the curse of sore feet! I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet. That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: Our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together … But here I am, looking into his shoes, which have high heels and an inner platform at least two and a half inches high … Although his thin, permed hair adds to the illusion of height, the Dear Leader can’t be more than five feet three inches.”

Much as Winston Smith’s Oceania is two societies — Party elites inhabiting a shabby but functioning urban core; surrounded by vast tracts populated by simple-minded semi-literate “proles” — so is North Korea. Drab and depressing as it seems to outsiders, the capital of Pyongyang is actually a paradise compared to the medieval destitution that afflicts much of the countryside. Indeed, the government is so obsessed with keeping up Pyongyang’s appearances as a model city that it expels handicapped residents to the countryside, lest their disabilities offend the eyes of international visitors.

The most dramatic and haunting chapters of Jang’s book are those in which he describes a brief trip to his hometown shortly after his elevation to the status of Admitted. He had expected to be showered with admiration by family and childhood friends — and indeed he is. But he takes no pleasure in it, for he is horrified by what hunger has made of the proles he once knew. A girl he once had a crush on in grade school, still in her 20s, resembles a sickly hag. Some people he called friends have starved to death outright — though the locals do not dare to call it that (“pneumonia” is a coded euphemism).

In the local market, the line between merchants and beggars is blurred beyond distinction, as desperate peddlers sell bedding stuffed with cigarette butts and other ragged oddments. At a welcome feast for Jang, a small bowl of rice is produced for his consumption as if it were a gift made of gold. No one in the room has eaten so much rice at one sitting for years. They’d saved grains of the stuff in dribs and drabs over weeks to produce the gift. But Jang — who had gained his renown singing the virtues of the Kim dynasty’s brilliant management of the nation’s affairs — is so sick with guilt and cognitive dissonance that he can’t bear to look at the bowl, much less eat from it. It is the most piteous dinner party imaginable.

Jang is supposed to return to Pyongyang to commence work on an epic paean entitled An Ode To The Smiling Sun. Instead, he writes about the reality of North Korea, lines that could get him killed if anyone were to see them — the equivalent of Smith’s repeatedly scrawling “Down with Big Brother” in his journal. In Dear Leader, some of this sad poetry is reproduced, including a work entitled The Most Delicious Thing In The World:

Three months ago, my brother said
The most delicious thing in the world
Was a warm corncob;

Two months ago, my brother said
The most delicious thing in the world
Was a roasted grasshopper;

One month ago, my brother said
The most delicious thing in the world
Was the dream he ate last night.

If my brother were alive today
What would he say this month, and next, was
The most delicious thing in the world?

During the five weeks of Kim Jong-un’s recent public absence, some wondered whether this might finally be it for the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship. Over seven decades, North Korea has been ruled by three generations of Kims. Can the torch be passed to a fourth?

Jang’s book suggests that the answer to this question might not matter as much as one might think. The real power in North Korea, he argues, is wielded not by the Kim family, or even by the military, but by the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party, a massive bureaucracy that Kim Jong-il built up during the 1980s as a means to seize power behind the scenes while his father, Kim Il-Sung, ruled as an aging figurehead. If Kim Jong-un dies tomorrow, the OGD may simply pick some new stuffed suit to sit atop the national leader cult in his stead.

The larger problem is that most North Koreans lack any concept of how a free populace might be organized. As Jang writes, it is a “patriarchal society [that] went straight from feudal Confuscianism to Kim dynasty rule.” This is why even those North Korean escapees who make it to South Korea (such as Jang) typically have enormous difficulties adapting to their newfound freedom.

The prospect of millions of these people fleeing to China and South Korea amid the disintegration of the North Korean police state is terrifying to Beijing, which is why China continues to provide support to Pyonyang. But eventually, the North Korean tyranny will fall: In recent years, for the first time, the dissemination of cell phones and foreign DVDs has begun to undermine Pyongyang’s brainwashing campaigns. Many North Koreans, particularly in the border regions, are now aware that they have become Asia’s starving runt. The walls of the prison state cannot stand forever.

In 1984, Winston Smith had nowhere to go, because the whole world was divided up by three totalitarian regimes. But that is not how true history turned out. Freedom awaits those North Koreans who can make their escape. Their numbers likely will surge in coming years, as the regime begins its inevitable collapse. But few, I suspect, will have a story as fascinating to tell as Jang Jin-Sung.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.