"Star of the North"

As the U.S. approaches a possible diplomatic engagement with North Korea, author D. B. John has released a timely tour-de-force set in that opaque and mysterious country.

John toured North Korea as a journalist in 2012 and noted, “A visit to Pyongyang is like a tour of a gigantic stage set, where visitors are forbidden to peek behind the scenery, interview the actors, or question the script. After a week in the country I had contracted propaganda sickness.”

This superficial exposure made the author wonder about the inner lives of North Korean citizens. When he returned home, he began reading accounts of North Koreans who had fled their homeland. The result is this epic, informative thriller.

Three main characters tell the story.

Jenna Williams is the daughter of biracial parents. Her father is African-American, her mother, Korean. Her twin sister, Soo-min, is abducted from a beach by North Korean officials in 1999 when both girls are 18. The authorities tell Jenna her sister has drowned, but she refuses to believe the official account. In 2012, Jenna leaves her Georgetown University professorship to become a CIA agent. She risks her life to enter North Korea in search of her sister, whom she assumes is a prisoner there.

Cho Sang-ho is an elite North Korean diplomat, serving as a delegate to the United Nations who socializes with senior American officials there. But when Korean authorities discover events in Cho’s family that could make him a threat to the government, Cho Sang-ho falls from favor with government leaders and is sent to a Korean prison camp. The “camp was so vast 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.”

The third character, Mrs. Moon, represents the North Korean proletariat. She is a 60-year-old working class woman who sells rice cakes in a village market near the Chinese border. She also sets herself up as a black marketer and clandestinely sells goods smuggled from South Korea.

The storylines of these three characters interweave, providing an exhilarating, intriguing plot. The novel ends with a fiery chase brimming with unusual twists and turns. Through it all, the reader is unexpectedly educated about realities in the hermit realm of North Korea.

John offers a fresh, informed look at the oppression, corruption and widespread misery caused by Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s current totalitarian dictator. The novel, grounded in facts, is intellectually stimulating because of this new, and sometimes maddening, information about life in this regime.

This is a smart, sophisticated, topical spy story hard to put down. Moles, covert missions and the human suffering and the pervading depression of Camp 22 provide an emotionally captivating story. I highly recommend this book for anyone longing to know more about this shadowy nation and its secretive regime.

D. B. John was born in Wales. He began training as a lawyer, but switched to a career in publishing, editing popular children’s books on history and science. In 2009 he moved to Berlin, Germany, to write his first novel, “Flight from Berlin”. He also co-wrote the memoir “The Girl with the Seven Names” with North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee. “Star of the North” is published by Crown; 416 pages.