Star of the North by D.B. John

Review published on February 2, 2018.

Star of the North is one to look out for when it’s published in early May. The publisher uses the strap line “the most explosive thriller of the year” – that remains to be seen, but boy is this good. Original, cleverly plotted and easy to read (even with the challenging character/place names). After a brilliant set up it’s action all the way to the finish. As the strands of the story come together the plot reaches a nail biting and powerful conclusion. You will find it hard to believe a lot of what you read but apart from one obvious fictional leap it is all based on real events (a useful afterword gives details of North Korean activities that feature in the plot).

You can’t really get much more topical than a thriller set in North Korea, even though this is mainly set a few years ago in 2010/11. D.B. John is one of the few American journalists to have been inside the country and seen first hand the experience of local people under the Communist regime; fear, mass brainwashing and the cult of Kim. North Korea is the most secretive and cut-off country in the world. The regime is determined to be reckoned with as a nuclear power with the capacity to threaten the coastal United States with its long range missiles.

Star of the North begins in 1998, 18-year-old Soo-min and her boyfriend Jae-hoon go missing from a beach on South Korean Island Baengnyeong. The Incheon police conclude that the couple didn’t leave the island by ferry for the mainland. Their possessions, including a last photograph, were found on the beach and so it is assumed the couple must have drowned. Soo-min’s twin sister, Jee-min, is forced to accept this.

2010, Washington. Jenna (Jee-min) is teaching but still suffering from the loss of her sister. The North Koreans have recently launched the latest Unha 3 missile, threatening to destabilise the region. Jenna is approached by the mysterious Charles Fisk, he claims to be a friend of her father but she knows he is CIA. They want her skills as a linguist and her passion for answers about the disappearance of her sister. What sways it for Jenna is a meeting with a Japanese mother who also lost her son several years ago and blames the North Korean regime. New evidence has emerged from a captured commando about a kidnapping programme. Individuals have systematically been abducted, some from remote locations by submarine. The CIA assume it’s a training programme for their spies, to be sent on missions in South Korea and the West.

At the top of North Korea’s government, Kim Jung-il trusts no one and as officials jostle for power Yong-ho and brother Cho are rising stars. Cho boss, General Kang is removed (executed), and he inherits the leadership of a diplomatic mission to New York to negotiate with the “devil” – America (they desperately need food and foreign currency). The golden rule is no fraternising.
Mrs Moon, a grandmother, can no longer work effectively at the communal farm, she leaves the collective and sets up an illegal stall at Hyesan station. Starting with the proceeds from selling a South Korean food drop (aid parcel), she soon learns to make money, pay the bribes and survive.

D.B. John provides a really fascinating insight into the lives of the people of one of the world’s poorest countries. The corruption, bribing the local police, dealing in Chinese currency, the utter brutality if the camps and the secret programmes that are a chilling reminder of Nazi brutality. The resilience and resourcefulness of the ordinary families of North Korea are admirable.

Star of the North gets behind the relationship between the US and North Korea, the mistrust, bad faith and misunderstandings. You get a feel for the politics of the region and an understanding of both sides. The desperate attempts of the CIA to infiltrate and get to know more about the secretive regime. You won’t sympathise with the North Korean position but you will understand it a bit better. Star of the North helps to explain how we have come to the current impasse.

Jenna is a resourceful and intelligent character, driven by events in the past but Cho, the North Korean Colonel, is equally interesting. Star of the North comes into its own when the action transfers to Pyongyang and Korea. The sense of daily life beyond the facade is eye opening.

All that aside, this is a top notch thriller. A cracking read that you won’t want to put down. Spies, covert missile production, drug trafficking, the human misery of camp 22 and the euphemistically named ‘Maram Secret Guest House’ all ramp up the tension. There is more than one desperate chase leading to a satisfying conclusion. This could be a one off but if we see more of Jenna (Jee-min) CIA operative that would be welcome. A great read.

Paul Burke 5/4

Star of the North by D.B. John
Harvill Secker 9781787300477 hbk May 2018

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