Star of the North by D B John

Reviewed by Annabel

Very few westerners get to visit North Korea, and DB John is one of them – he’s seen the public face of this secretive place from the inside, although he acknowledges that his visit ‘barely scratched the surface’. Now he’s written a thriller about the country and his timing couldn’t be better for its publication a few weeks ago.

The prologue starts in 1988 with a young couple on the beach of a small South Korean island. They never return home and are presumed drowned but Soo-min’s identical twin sister Jee-min, known as Jenna, is sure that her sister survives, that she was abducted. Jenna has never stopped believing that Soo-min is alive. Twenty-two years later, she is a lecturer in a college in Washington and a skilled linguist, speaking perfect Korean, (her mother is Korean, her late father was African-American).

Then a piece of news gives Jenna fresh hope. A captured submarine captain has admitted kidnapping people from beaches and taking them to the North all those years ago. When Jenna is approached by Charles Fisk of the CIA, who needs linguists with knowledge of Korean politics, Jenna is easily recruited, and starts her training at Langley where she is a star pupil.

In parallel threads, we go inside the Kim Jung-il’s North Korea. Firstly, we meet two brothers, Yung-Ho and Cho, who are rising stars in the regime. When Cho’s boss, General Kang is executed, Cho takes over his mission to the United Nations, where he must negotiate with the Americans to get hard currency. However, the brothers were adopted – they don’t know who their real father was – they live in fear of finding out that their father was unacceptable to their ‘Dear Leader’.

Contrasting with the brothers’ story is that of Mrs Moon, a farm-worker, who has seen things change since the days of the ‘Great Leader’:

“Rice means socialism,” he told them, and through the years of bumper harvests and fields of flying red flags, his words seemed a self-evident truth.

But the Father died and the world changed. Power passed to the Son, the Dear Leader, and Mrs. Moon learned that hunger meant socialism, too. The ration system that had provided for everyone, twice a month like clockwork, became irregular, then broken down. The farm director called in the army to protect the grain store, and it was robbed by the very soldiers sent to guard it.

Mrs. Moon unexpectedly finds a package of something she can sell and sets off to the railway station where an unofficial market takes place. Here she meets a young woman, Curly, and becomes a cook and trader among the many women who hold stalls. They have a real sisterhood and it was heartening to see some trust in this otherwise distrusting country.

It is no big surprise that the West will try to turn Cho at the UN, nor that Jenna will be sent on a dangerous mission to North Korea during which she’ll try to discover where her sister is and rescue her. However, John has crafted a thriller that is genuinely enthralling with cliff-hanger suspense and horror at the corruption and awful human rights situation in North Korea. There are moments that grab our sympathy too, especially in Mrs Moon’s story. Of course we want Jenna to find her answers too – she may have been a star trainee, but as an agent, she is still a rookie. It’ll be interesting to see if John gives her another outing; there must be scope for more.

An appendix tells us a little about the known facts of various political programmes, places and the leaders of North Korea, which John has woven into this engrossing political thriller. He’s blended fact into fiction in the same way Jane Thynne does so well in her Clara Vine novels, although she concentrates on the womens’ stories rather than the bigger picture as in John’s case.

You’ll finish reading this timely thriller realising that any knowledge you had of North Korea was just scratching the surface too, but you’ll also be desperately hoping that a certain President doesn’t muck things up big-time!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

D B John, Star of the North (Harvill Secker, 2018). 978-1787300477, 440pp., hardback.

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