By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
On the surface, "A Corpse in the Koryo," by James Church, is a crackling good mystery novel, filled with unusual characters involved in a complex plot that keeps you guessing to the end. It has received rave reviews -- as a mystery novel.
But the book has also caused a stir among Asia specialists because it offers an unusually nuanced and detailed portrait of one of the most closed societies on Earth -- North Korea. Much like Martin Cruz Smith's novel "Gorky Park," which depicted life in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s through the eyes of police inspector, "A Corpse on the Koryo" provides a vivid window into a mysterious country through the perspective of its primary character -- Inspector O.
Peter Hayes, a North Korea expert who is executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, a research group, described the novel as "the best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has survived all these years when the rest of the communist world capitulated to the global market a decade ago," and said, "This novel should be required bedtime reading for President Bush and his national security team."
That was precisely the point of writing the book, according to the author. James Church is a pseudonym for what the book jacket describes as "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia" who "has wandered through Korea for years." In an interview, Church said he was frustrated by the limitations of his intelligence reports. He was often required to frame any information through the moral lens of Western society, which regards North Korea as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. So he decided to see if he could take his intimate knowledge of North Korea and make it accessible to a wider audience by placing it in a thriller.
In the academic or intelligence world, an analyst who wrote about North Korea without the standard "moral bubble" immediately would be accused of being blind to the "awfulness of the place," Church said. "You don't have to do that in a mystery story."
The result is fascinating. Much of Church's writing is quite beautiful -- one wonders what his intelligence reports read like -- with keen observations of even the smallest details.
The traditional stereotype of North Korea is that it is a bare, broken place, but the book races across the northern half of the Korean Peninsula providing elaborate descriptions of its virtually unspoiled beaches and mountains. (The book, however, is sadly lacking maps.) Church said it is very difficult to look at any horizon in North Korea without seeing mountains or hills. So he sought to show how important the landscape is to the North Korean people -- and demonstrate their deep psychological attachment to it.
The characters are caught up in a blindingly complex system of cross and double-cross, a world in which every step is watched and reported on by someone else. Inspector O, who is very smart and has a sense of humor, must carefully navigate between friend and foe as he tries to unravel the connection between the death of a mysterious foreigner in a Pyongyang hotel and two rival smuggling schemes run by different government ministries. But Church shows how the North Korean government is unlike the Soviet regimes imposed on Eastern Europe, how it has adapted and in many ways become uniquely Korean.
The characters have their complaints about the strange society -- Inspector O is always in search of sandpaper for his woodworking and a cup of tea -- but also defend it. When Inspector O encounters a Finnish woman and mentions how the river in Pyongyang "sparkles on sunny days," she asks him, "Have you ever been anywhere real?" He lashes out that he has been overseas, but "some things are good, some things aren't, same as here. Nothing is perfect. This godforsaken country, as you call it, is where I live. This is my home."
The plot of the investigation is interwoven with scenes of an interrogation of Inspector O by an Irish intelligence officer who has a stereotypical view of the country, allowing Church to explore how the Western and North Korean realities rub against each other. The conversation at times seems an echo of fruitless conversations between Americans and North Koreans over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.
But the book does not mention politics, nuclear weapons or even North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, keeping it grounded in the everyday existence of the North Korean people. It has been such a success that a second novel on the travails of Inspector O is in the works.