The Unbelievable Story of North Korea's Most Celebrated Propagandist

When one South Korean family lost their son to the invaders from the North in 1950, they never thought they would see him again.

The Oh Family and The Hankyoreh Newspaper / Nathan Benn / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

One day in the summer of 1967, a young South Korean army captain named Oh Hyung Jae received a summons from the army counterintelligence corps. His specialty was not espionage, but applied mathematics, which he taught at the Korea Military Academy. What could they want with me?, he wondered as an army Jeep pulled up to his office.

At the counterintelligence bureau in Seoul, an agent was waiting for him. In his hands he held Oh’s old military-academy application from 1955. A grim, knowing look stretched across his face. “Didn’t you leave something out?” he asked Oh, handing him the document. He had: Under the section for “family relations,” Oh had neglected to list one of his brothers, Oh Young Jae, who had gone missing 17 years earlier in the welter of the Korean War. Hyung Jae’s stomach dropped. In the course of a sweeping counterintelligence operation, the South Korean military had discovered that Young Jae had been conscripted by the invading North Korean army in July of 1950—a secret the family had held close since then. In the South Korean military, those with personal ties to North Korea were barred from service. For this reason, Hyung Jae explained, he’d omitted mention of his brother from his application. But that wasn’t all the military knew: Young Jae, whom the family had long since given up for dead, was in fact alive and may be training as a North Korean spy, the officer told Hyung Jae. “I immediately ran outside and broke down in tears,” Hyung Jae said. “The officer told me to let it all out.” The discovery would result in Hyung Jae’s discharge from the army in 1974.

Despite the revelation, “we … went on with our lives. But I don’t think my mother ever truly forgot” about Young Jae, Keun Jae, one of the Oh brothers, told me.

In the following decades, South Korea transformed itself from a poor, war-ravaged nation into a wealthy democracy, deepening the contrast with the opaque, dynastic dictatorship that had emerged in the North. With the war behind them, the Oh brothers settled into careers in academia and started families. As North and South Korea set on vastly divergent paths, reunification became a distant dream, even as thousands of South Koreans like the Ohs, separated from their loved ones during the war, wondered if they would ever see them again.

September 4, 1990, some 16 years after Oh Hyung Jae’s discharge, began like any other day for him. That morning, he picked up a copy of The Hankyoreh, one of South Korea’s top dailies, which contained a dispatch about a literary-exchange program for North Korean, Korean American, and South Korean poets and writers. As Hyung Jae scanned the article, his eyes fixed on the name of a poet in Pyongyang who had grown up in South Korea: Oh Young Jae, the same as his long lost brother’s. The poet, the article said, “wept as he sang Bandal [or ‘Half Moon’]”—a song he sang with his brothers during their childhood. The poet also mentioned the name of his mother, Kwak Aeng Soon. Hyung Jae gasped with shock, feeling his “entire world collapse.” He had found his missing brother. Stranger yet: After reading the piece, Hyung Jae learned that his brother had become one of North Korea’s most venerated ideologues, the author of long socialist epics and hagiographies of the supreme leaders.

For the Oh brothers, Young Jae’s life was a series of mysteries, a strange alchemy of shifting identities, unknowable motivations, and perilous historical forces cast against the national trauma left by the Korean War. As they would discover, there would be no easy answers in their quest to understand how a teenager with no political beliefs had become a propaganda mouthpiece for the enemy state, and to find out whether he was still the brother they’d once known.

Little information exists about Oh Young Jae’s life in North Korea, especially in the years before his reemergence. But from his autobiographical writings, poetry, and testimonies from those who met him emerges a story about the complexities of national identity, and the ways in which family bonds can defy ideological divides.

Oh Young Jae was born on November 17th, 1935, in Jangseong, a small farming village off the southwestern coast of South Korea. The second eldest of seven siblings, he was a headstrong teenager who “would get in your face,” Hyung Jae recalled of his older brother. Young Jae had little interest in schoolwork or books, much to the dismay of his strict father, a school principal.

Within weeks of the outbreak of the Korean War, the North Korean army marched into Gangjin, the small farming village where the Oh family then lived. “One of the first things the North Korean military did when they arrived was indoctrination through music,” Keun Jae said. “The young North Korean soldiers would come to the village every night to teach us military songs and the North Korean anthem.” The festive gatherings included singing competitions and performances of “plays about a poor farmer being exploited by an evil landowner,” Hyung Jae said.

The indoctrination was the first step in the process of recruiting South Korean youth like Young Jae. The army conscripted young men from local schools, including the high school Hyung Jae and Young Jae attended. The North Korean army would eventually force, coerce, or indoctrinate, as many as 100,000 South Koreans, most of whom never returned home. Men were forced to fight on the front lines or perform logistical duties, while women took on nursing or propaganda roles. By the time the North Korean forces had reached Gangjin, they had secured a number of decisive victories against the South Korean army. To the villagers, a North Korean victory seemed imminent. The propaganda officers “told us a new era had come,” Hyung Jae said.

One day, several weeks after the army swept into Gangjin, the North Korean officers assembled Young Jae with his peers to recruit volunteers, as Hyung Jae, who attended the same school as Young Jae, told me. Egged on by his classmates and teachers, Young Jae, only 15 years old, stepped forward, and was soon taken to a village 20 miles away for a week of basic training before marching out to the front. When his mother learned of his decision, she rushed to stop him, walking 20 miles on a winding mountain dirt path with her infant daughter on her back. But Young Jae rebuffed her, his brothers recalled. “Why did you come? You’re making me lose my nerve. Just go home,” he said. His mother gave him one last smile. “I got to see you, and that’s all I needed,” she said. Decades later, Young Jae would say that he never forgot that image of his mother, walking away into the sunset for what would be the last time he saw her.

Keun Jae and Hyung Jae speculated that their brother’s decision was motivated not by ideology, but by a desire to escape from an unhappy home life, one where he felt excluded from his parents’ affection. In the 1990 interview, Young Jae admitted that he “had no political beliefs to speak of” when he left home.

The war marked Oh Young Jae’s artistic awakening. Young Jae was quickly plunged into battle, shooting at “black shapes,” as he wrote in a memoir, running in his direction and watching them crumple to the ground. In August 1950, he fought in the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, one of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War. In Jakbyeol (or “Farewell”), a poetic memoir of his wartime experiences, Young Jae recounted the first time he saw his reflection in a cracked mirror after that battle. Discovering the fresh stubble on his face, he was startled by the “strange youth … blankly gazing back at him,” and he mourned the loss of his “boyhood days.”

As the North Korean army retreated back up the peninsula in 1951, passing through a farming village in Gangwon province, Oh Young Jae came across a charred book of North Korean poetry, published for the soldiers. This seems to have triggered his creative desires. Sitting atop munition crates, he began writing his own poems. “I began to write poetry because I was constantly overcome with the desire to cry out, to express something,” Oh said in a 2003 interview. “Wartime is filled with days where emotions come together: rage and sadness, tears and hatred.” In 1953, while still a soldier, he published his first poem, Gaengdoneun gipeoganda (“The mine shaft grows deeper”), a fiery diatribe against American imperialism that uses the image of a deepening of a mine shaft as a metaphor for the enemy’s impending death.

After his discharge in 1957, Oh settled in Pyongyang, where he worked as a heating technician and continued to publish poetry, everything from anti-American polemics to socialist paeans. His work, printed in newspapers and literary journals, eventually caught the eye of the central party, which sponsored his college education and put him through a poetry training program. By 1965, Oh was a state-propaganda poet working for the central party. The North Korea expert and literary critic Noh Kwi Nam, who authored an essay about Oh Young Jae, told me that at the time “the party placed writers at the fore of their propaganda and agitation efforts.” Poetry also lent itself well to the regime’s aims of conveying succinct, evocative scenes of socialist nation building. “North Korea puts a lot of weight on everyday experiences,” Noh said. “So they often send writers out to the field in person, be it a mine shaft or a farm.”

“When you first learn poetry in North Korea, you’re not learning from North Korean political poetry. You learn by studying works by writers like Pushkin or Goethe,” the former state poet Choi Jin I, who defected to South Korea in 1999, told me. “Then when you’re told to write political poetry, you feel an internal dissent or repulsion, like you’re drinking poison.” Discontent was pervasive among the propaganda department’s poets, who would often gather in secret to voice their frustrations, Choi said.

The party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department “gathered the writers every week or so and gave us the topics we were to write about, and issued threats if you didn’t comply,” Choi said. After clearing the censors, finished works were sent to Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il, who would evaluate them on the basis of their ideological merit. (In North Korea, it is widely believed that Kim authored Juche Literary Theory, the official manual of North Korean literary criticism.) “If you accumulate a lot of works that are approved like this, then you become eligible for certain benefits,” Choi said.

According to Choi, who knew Oh Young Jae during his rise in the 1980s, he was a technically skilled poet who quickly ascended the ranks in part because of his amenable demeanor. “When given orders about what to write from up top, he was the type to dutifully obey them,” Choi said. “He was a transplant in North Korea with no political pedigree so he had no choice but to be obedient.” Oh also showed a delicate aesthetic sensibility, Choi said. “His poems were crisp, and full of everyday charm.”

In 1989, Oh received the prestigious Kim Il Sung Prize, and was named poet laureate. In 1995, he was declared a Labor Hero, one of North Korea’s highest civilian honors. As Noh’s essay on Oh Young Jae recounts, Kim Jong Il praised him as “someone who walked the path of revolution alongside us.”

After Oh Hyung Jae read the 1990 story, he and his brothers, with the help of the reporter, managed to open a correspondence with Young Jae. Our “mother was overjoyed, just to hear he was alive,” Keun Jae said. Young Jae hadn’t forgotten about his family, saying in the 1990 interview that he dreamed of his mother “at least once every four days.” In a letter from 1993, she promised to “stay alive until we can meet” and told him to become “an ever greater poet [and] write great poems that will be remembered for ages to come.” But a reunion was not to be: Kwak Aeng Soon died in 1995.

By 2000, South Korea had embarked on a campaign of reconciliation with the North. In August of that year, at Seoul’s COEX mall, a sprawling symbol of capitalism’s postwar bloom in South Korea, the two countries held the first ever reunion event for families like the Ohs. Together with their older brother Seung Jae, their younger sister Pil Sook, and their uncle, Hyung Jae and Keun Jae sat at their table, waiting for the banquet hall doors to swing open. When they did, a 64-year-old Young Jae was the first to enter, and the Ohs collided in a tearful embrace.

Yet the euphoria of reunion was soon replaced by unease. “There was nothing to talk about,” Keun Jae told me. Ideological difference was the elephant in the room, implicitly understood to be forbidden territory. Occasionally, Oh would praise Kim Jong Il, casting an uncomfortable pall over his siblings. When Hyung Jae proposed singing a song from their childhood together, Oh fell silent before saying no, presumably because the song referenced Christianity, which is forbidden in North Korea. “Both sides just avoided … politics because I think we were both worried what would happen if word got out that we were talking about such things,” Hyung Jae said.

As the siblings reminisced, “it seemed as though all [Young Jae] was thinking about was our mother,” Seung Jae wrote in his memoir. When they handed him his childhood report cards, essays, and drawings that their deceased mother had saved, Oh Young Jae wept. The brothers set up a makeshift memorial in a hotel room provided for families so that Young Jae could pay his respects to their mother. After scanning the room for hidden microphones, he poured her a ceremonial offering of liquor, using a ceremonial shot glass given to him by Kim Il Sung. He delivered a soliloquy in front of his mother’s portrait, where he expressed his hopes for reunification. “When we reunified and I embarked on the road heading to South Korea, I was going to start shouting your name from miles away as I ran toward you,” Oh said. “Now whose name will I call as I open the doors to my childhood home?

The dramatic family saga turned Oh Young Jae into an enduring symbol of reconciliation in South Korea. Newspapers ran stories quoting his pleas for peaceful dialogue and exchange, and reprinted his poems calling for reunification, which he had recited at the reunion. South Korean poets welcomed him as a voice of peace, and invited him to “reunification literature” symposiums. During remarks at the inter-Korean Panmunjom summit earlier this year, it was one of Oh’s poems, written and dedicated to his family in the South, that President Moon Jae In recited for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

When it came time to part, Hyung Jae promised his brother that they would meet again. “He wouldn’t believe me, and left crying,” Hyung Jae said. “I think he knew that we would never meet again.” In 2011, his brothers learned from an obituary published by North Korea’s state news agency that Young Jae had died of thyroid cancer.

In the years to come, the Oh family realized their reunion had raised more questions than it answered. The brothers wondered what lay behind Oh Young Jae’s mask of ardent regime loyalist. Left with so many questions about who Young Jae was, his brothers have turned to his poetry.

In one of Oh’s poems, titled Joguk yi saranghan cheonyeo (“The girl loved by the Fatherland”), he writes: “Ah, your bosom is a bosom that blooms, and embroiders our leader’s great will into the earth! You are a clear, firm, and sparkling crystal egg, raised by our socialist fatherland.” The lines brim with performative bombast, a mannered sentimentalism, and a blatantly ideological bent—common features of North Korean propaganda. Yet in Oh’s poems recounting his war experiences and in others dedicated to his mother, a sincere melancholy shines through—the imprint of a lonely, displaced soul, seeking refuge in self-expression, as Noh, the literary critic, has argued. In Neulkji masira, eomeoni yeo (“Mother, age no more”), Oh laments the passage of time that consumes his mother’s life: “Bring me the years passing by my mother, so that I can take her share and age two years instead of one.” “When Young Jae wrote poems about our mother, he took off his ideological frames and sang those things that swelled up from within him,” Keun Jae said. “Ideology is an outside crust, not our internal architecture.”

In South Korea, Young Jae is seen as a complex figure, chewed up and spit out by a tragic war, driven to poetry by his inner torment. Ko Un, a prominent South Korean poet who befriended him in 1990, remembered him as a poet consumed by a profound sense of loss and displacement. In 2000, the two poets met during Oh’s family reunion and co-wrote “I’ve been wanting to meet,” a poem expressing their shared desire for Korean unification. “Because the two of us were bonded in flesh and blood by poetry, we could quickly write a poem by just talking to one another,” said Ko.

It’s possible that Oh, despite being groomed as a regime propagandist, might have felt a disconnect. “Oh was part of the generation who saw with their own eyes people being victimized for political crimes, and so knew that such rebellion was futile,” Choi, the former North Korea state poet, said. “But I don’t think he had any real hate in his heart. He just wanted to see his mother.”

In a time when Korean reunification feels increasingly like a pipe dream, propped up by a sense of idealism that hasn’t quite lost momentum, Oh Young Jae’s story occupies a quickly shrinking space in the South Korean consciousness. Fewer and fewer South Koreans have a personal stake or interest in reunification.

For Keun Jae and Hyung Jae, the story of their brother cannot be reduced to a simple parable about the triumph of family bond over ideology, or vice versa. In many ways, Young Jae reaped the benefits of privilege and was probably “genuinely thankful to his country,” Keun Jae said. But there is also a paradox inherent in the story of the propaganda poet of a totalitarian state, still yearning for the mother he left behind in enemy territory.