STAR OF THE NORTH: A NOVEL
By D.B. John
Crown, $27, 482 pages
At hand is what could be termed a double-header of a book. The main story line involves the search by a Korean-born CIA officer for her twin sister, abducted as a child as part of a sickeningly nefarious plot by the country’s leader.
Yet this account is overshadowed by D.B. John’s depiction of the wretched daily lives of the Korean people under the rule of three generations of tyrants. (A personal note. I have been a “Korea watcher” for 30-odd years, since writing a book on the Korean War. And Mr. John’s depiction of life in the North is so brutal as to thrust the “thriller element” of his book into the shadows.)
The book is set in the reign of Kim Jong-il, second of the family of tyrants which has ruled since the 1940s. How does the “Dear Leader” (and his son, the current ruler, for that matter) remain in power?
In the words of an observer, “He’s a survivor, playing a poor hand with great skill. His weapons keep him safe from us. Hunger keeps him safe at home. His people think only of where their next meal is coming from, not of rebellion. And he’ll kill as many of them as it takes to stay in power.”
The portrayal of famine-induced suffering, as told in the words of an elderly shopkeeper, is so heartrending as to be unreadable. Children pick through the droppings of oxen “in search of undigested seeds to eat. New graves were dug up, and the corpses vanished. Parents took food from their own children.”
This human suffering is carried out against a backdrop of giant murals that are omnipresent on every street displaying the smug face of The Great Leader — Kim il-Sung, grandfather of the current tyrant.
Such portraits are required to be posted in every home. Officers from the Bowibu, the secret police, periodically storm into houses to make white-glove inspections. A speck of mold or dust on a picture brings punishment for “disrespect.”
Yet there is a smattering of dissidents, their hopes kept alive by occasional balloon-drops from Christian groups containing both food messages of inspiration: “to our sisters and brothers in the North We miss you and care about your suffering. We await the day when North and South are reunited through the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. “
Briefly: Soo-Min, the teen twin sister of Jenna vanishes while swimming on a South Korean beach and is feared drowned. The girls’ parents are a Korean woman and an African-American father, a soldier.
Jenna graduates from Georgetown University and goes to work for a defense-oriented think tank. She holds out hope that her sister just might be alive.
Then there is a startling discovery. A young biracial man escapes from a North Korean prison camp with a startling story. Security officers have been kidnapping biracial youngsters for years.
The purpose: “the Seed-Bearing Program.” As an official explains: “We’re creating spies and assassins who look foreign — some have blue eyes and blond hair — but who have been brought up learning nothing but the teachings of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader “
Learning of the program, the CIA recruits Jenna to go into North Korea to rescue her sister and to expose the program. She goes through a cram-course in spy-craft at the agency’s training farm in Tidewater, Virginia, that appears a bit unrealistic, but no problem: We are dealing with fiction.
Woven into this story is the dilemma of an up-and-coming government bureaucrat, Cho, who has a dark family secret that would lead to his execution if exposed.
Cho travels to New York on official business and is startled to learn that he has been given counterfeit currency to cover his expenses. Such is the only way North Korea can send emissaries abroad. (Drugs are another source of income.)
Cho’s mission is to wrangle financial aid for North Korea in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program.
The U.S. negotiators include a “world-famous former secretary of state,” a Wall Street executive, even a former president of the United States.
Cho permits himself a smile as he watches “these men abasing themselves before the Great Leader’s greatness. They were on their faces paying homage.”
In the end, these talks came to naught. But Jenna does find and rescue her sister, and Cho manages to survive the charges against him. Two bright spots in a melange of horrors.
Author D.B. John, who is British, based his accounts on his observations while visiting North Korea, plus a bountiful array of accounts by escapees from the Asian hell. Can the North Korean people ever escape the state-imposed brutality of their daily lives? One turns through the pages of this book without seeing any trace of possible freedom.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and national security matters.