As we await the possibility of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, D.B. John’s timely new novel offers a cool-eyed portrait of our adversary. “Star of the North” portrays a society in which an elite lives in luxury, the masses struggle to survive and many thousands accused of political dissent are condemned to prison camps where starvation and death await them.
The Welsh novelist explains that when he toured the country in 2012, tourists were expected to bow to statues of the nation’s founder, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. He reluctantly did so lest a refusal cause trouble for the guides leading the tour, but once he returned home, he began reading books by North Koreans who had escaped their homeland. What he learned led to this novel.
John tells his story through three main characters.
Jenna Williams is the daughter of an African American father and a Korean mother. When she was 18, her beloved twin sister was kidnapped by North Koreans while swimming on a beach in South Korea. (At one point North Korean agents did kidnap hundreds of people to exploit in various ways.) A heartbroken Jenna refused to believe the official verdict that her sister drowned. She becomes a CIA agent who, at age 30, finds a way to visit North Korea and search for the sister she believes may be a prisoner there.
Cho Sang-ho is a rising North Korean diplomat. In an early scene he leads a delegation to the United Nations and dines with senior American officials at Manhattan’s 21 Club. But Cho falls from favor and is soon near death in a prison camp. The “camp was so vast that it encompassed farms, coal mines, and factories, all worked by slaves and the children of slaves, born in that place, for whom the camp was the universe entire.”
Mrs. Moon, a woman of 60 who sells rice cakes and soup in a village market near the Chinese border, represents the ordinary, North Korean. She and other women in the market must contend with young toughs eager to rob them and corrupt police who demand bribes. One of her friends, found to be secretly a Christian, is executed. As the author notes, “North Korea has no freedom of religion, except, of course, for Kim worship.”
Mrs. Moon’s story also includes a flashback to a time of famine: “She saw hunger drive villagers insane. New graves were dug up and the corpses vanished. Parents took food from their own children.” The survivors were of course consoled that “The Dear Leader felt his people’s agony and wept for them.”
It is necessary, in reading the novel, to distinguish between the father, son and grandson who have been the nation’s three leaders. The Great Leader is the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, whose name translates as “Kim becomes the sun” and who died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong Il, called the Dear Leader, is in power for most of this story. We also glimpse the Dear Leader’s son, Kim Jong Un, who takes over upon his father’s death in 2011 and is hailed as the Great Successor, although known to some as Little Rocket Man.
Each is virtually a god and each lives exceedingly well. We’re told of the Dear Leader: “Children begged for grain in his streets, but the Guiding Star of the Twenty-First Century maintained seventeen palatial homes around the country.”
John tells his story with skill and a knack for pithy phrases such as “Her face was as plain as a blister.” One night, “The moon hung faint and silken like a spider’s egg.” Jenna glimpses “chestnut and beech woods as far as the eye could see, the hills of Virginia turning amber, red, gold.” The author offers facts about North Korea that may surprise some readers, such as the government, seeking to prop up its failing economy, manufacturing methamphetamine for its diplomats to sell to criminal gangs abroad.
I was disappointed only once in John’s storytelling. That was at the dinner at the 21 Club when one guest, an unnamed former American president, tucks his napkin in his shirt collar and talks with his mouth full. Goodness. If we want presidential crudity we needn’t look back that far.
“Star of the North” builds to a gripping climax. Cho, having escaped the prison camp, is desperately trying to reach China, even as Jenna, still searching for her sister, sets out to confront the Dear Leader himself. Can either possibly survive? It’s an exciting ending to a novel that, in addition to being highly entertaining, suggests the difficulties we face in dealing with a small, distant nation with values and beliefs so different from our own.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.
By D.B. John
Crown. 402 pp. $27