Thirty-year-old Jenna Williams is an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The daughter of a Korean mother and an African-American father, twelve years earlier her identical twin, Soo-Min, together with her boyfriend, went missing from a South Korean beach; mystery surrounded their disappearance but, as no bodies were ever found, it was assumed that they had both drowned. The sisters had always shared an uncannily close bond and, convinced that Soo-Min is still alive, Jenna has never been able to accept the official report. When escalating tensions between the US and North Korea bring her to the attention of the CIA, her fluency in Korean, with an authentic Northern dialect, the fact that not only is she highly intelligent but also ultra fit, an expert in tae kwon do, all combine to make her an ideal candidate for an important peace mission to North Korea. An incentive offered by the recruiter from the CIA is the possibility that by agreeing she might finally discover the truth behind what happened to her sister. Breaking news, from a biracial man who has escaped from a North Korean prison camp, suggests that the kidnapping and imprisonment of young foreign nationals has been going on for decades, with the purpose of using them in a secret programme, makes Jenna wonder if this is what happened to her sister. Is there really a chance that she is still alive? This possibility proves an irresistible lure and she is fast-tracked through the demanding training programme.
There are three distinct storylines in this gripping and disturbing novel about North Korea and its repressive and brutal regime under the dynasty of the Kim family. One is told from Jenna’s viewpoint and is the one which, at least initially, acts as the “linchpin” of the developing story. The other two use North Korean characters, from very different backgrounds, to carry the story. Lieutenant Colonel Cho, from Pyongyang, is a member of the elite class; he is happily married and has a young son, nicknamed Books, whom he adores. For reasons he has no knowledge of, as very young children he and his brother were adopted by a rich family. However, now in line for promotion and a key role in a diplomatic mission to America, charged with negotiating a deal which will achieve financial aid for North Korea in exchange for abandonment of its nuclear program, his background is being vetted. He is anxious about this because he is well aware that, should it emerge that his biological parents were “enemies of the state”, he will face the dire consequences of “guilt by association”. His voice carries the story of how even the most “privileged” of the country can never feel secure in the continuation of their lives of privilege.
The third storyline follows the elderly Mrs Moon, who lives in abject poverty with her second husband, in a restricted area in the north of the country, working on a penal farm. This is a punishment handed down many years earlier because her first husband had helped the Americans during the war. From her account, it soon becomes apparent that everyone living in this area not only faces shortages of absolutely everything and the risk of starvation, but also daily intimidation and brutality from local officials and the police. However, it becomes clear that Mrs Moon is prepared to take risks, to challenge the status quo and, when the opportunity comes for her to be part of a black-market economy, where anything and everything is used to trade for extra money and food, she quickly establishes herself as a courageous and resourceful leader, with all the risks this entails. Her story exposes the hypocrisies of a regime which extols how much its people are loved by its leader and how they are living in a land of plenty, whilst the reality is that they are living at starvation level whilst the elite enjoy unlimited luxury.
This moving and thought-provoking story gripped my attention from the start. The author managed the alternating stories of the three main characters in an impressive way, keeping each voice distinct as he gradually brought them together in a convincing way. Whilst I felt engaged with Jenna’s search for the truth (although there were moments when I did have to suspend disbelief at some of her actions!) it was the characters of Cho and Mrs Moon who stood out for me and who will, I know, remain so much more vivid in my memory. Each of their stories is heart-breaking and expose the reader to some very dark and disturbing images which, at times feel almost unbearable. I quickly felt drawn into the almost constant fear they had to live with as they tried to survive in a country where the rules could change at any moment, leaving them exposed to punishment, and even death. Just one image which I know will remain with me is a reflection from Mrs Moon, describing how children picked through the oxen droppings in search of undigested seeds, how parents took food from their own children and how new graves were dug up and corpses disappeared without trace. This highlighted, in such a visceral way, the level of starvation experienced by the desperately poor people in rural communities. Although these two characters come from very different backgrounds, what they have in common is their courage, their willingness to take risks and their determination to survive – I felt full of admiration for them both, but I grew to love Mrs Moon!
In his descriptions of North Korea, the author powerfully evokes a country where there is little respect for the individual, where life hangs by a thread and where the slightest infringement is likely to lead to either imprisonment or death. The author’s brief visit to North Korea exposed him to the strangeness of life in that country and prompted him to discover more. His subsequent, extensive research revealed even more strangeness than he had imagined, enabling him to create a story which offers so many insights into this secretive regime and the ways in which its leaders use relentless intimidation to subdue its people. It also highlights how it uses (or, abuses!) the international diplomatic process to secure concessions whilst continuing to follow its own agenda. It would be all too easy to think that some of what he describes is exaggerated, even fanciful, but his research sources (highlights of which are included in his fascinating, detailed notes at the end of the novel) offer convincing evidence that this is not the case. His story demonstrates how it is that the regime continues to control its people, ensuring their compliance by the merciless brutality with which any infringements are dealt.
Solzhenitsyn famously said, “You only have power over people as long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power—he’s free again”. From this story I feel I have gained some insight into how the Kim family has achieved this balance of control in such a monstrously effective way. Although there were times when I found it almost unbearable to read, it is one which I know will remain vivid in my mind, partly because I am aware that this level of control and brutality continues, making it hard to feel any optimism that change is likely in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, I was heartened by the courage shown by Mrs Moon because she carried the hope that there are people ready to make a stand. Many of the experiences faced by the characters were based on information from the memoirs of the very few North Koreans who have escaped the regime and defected so, maybe all we can do is hope that, somehow, many more will find a similar courage.
The dust jacket for this book describes it as “the most explosive thriller of the year” a big claim to make but it’s certainly the most gripping thriller I’ve read recently. However, with its political relevance and its insights into this secretive country, for me it is so much more than that because I have learnt so much and now feel motivated to increase my knowledge by following up on some of D.B. John’s reading recommendations.
Finally, I’m sure it will now be clear that I think this remarkable novel would be an excellent choice for reading groups!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
Star of the North by D.B. John
Harvill Secker 9781787300477 hbk May 2018