In­side Kim Jong Un’s North Korea

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - CONTENTS - BY SARAH OLIVER

Writer David John has a whole string of sto­ries that sum up the mad­ness and tragedy of North Korea. Per­haps od­dest of all was the day a fel­low tourist in Py­ongyang, the cap­i­tal of the rogue state, tried to take a sou­venir pho­to­graph of one of the coun­try’s traf­fic po­lice­men. The of­fi­cers, all women and all cho­sen for their good looks, di­rect traf­fic at in­ter­sec­tions with sig­nals from hands clad in sparkling white gloves. ‘He was stopped by po­lice shout­ing, “No pic­tures!” ’ says John. ‘We thought it was be­cause we were not sup­posed to have an im­age of any­one in uni­form, but it was be­cause the traf­fic sign be­hind her was rusty and the North Kore­ans only want to show the coun­try at its best.’

The coun­try has long tried to hide the ter­ri­ble real­i­ties of life un­der the Kim dy­nasty, but John’s new novel, a timely po­lit­i­cal thriller, Star Of The North, strips them bare. It may be fic­tion, but it’s so rooted in au­then­tic de­tail its pub­lisher is un­der­stood to have asked cy­ber­se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists for help in de­fend­ing it­self against re­venge hack­ing by the regime.

John, 52, who lives in north London, gath­ered his in­for­ma­tion first-hand by mak­ing a risky tourist trip to Py­ongyang. He stayed in the Yang­gakdo ho­tel, which has a fifth-floor lis­ten­ing sta­tion to spy on all its guests. In 2016 the Yang­gakdo be­came no­to­ri­ous as the scene of a prank that cost Amer­i­can stu­dent Otto Warm­bier his life. The eco­nom­ics ma­jor stole a pro­pa­ganda poster and was sen­tenced to 15 years in a labour camp. When he was re­leased af­ter 17 months, he was co­matose with se­vere brain dam­age and died soon af­ter his re­turn to the US.

‘North Korea,’ says John, ‘is not on ev­ery­one’s bucket list.’ As a life­long afi­cionado of dic­ta­tors, despots and tyrants it was, how­ever, al­ways on his. His two-week hol­i­day there in 2012 is about to pay a mas­sive div­i­dend on its £3,500 cost. Star Of The North, set be­tween the kind of gu­lag in which Warm­bier was im­pris­oned, Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton DC, is ex­pected to be a global best­seller.

John’s fic­tion bor­rows from North Korea’s real-life atroc­i­ties to tell the story of a young Amer­i­can woman, Soo-min, who dis­ap­pears from a South Korean is­land, be­lieved snatched by Py­ongyang’s agents. (Such ab­duc­tions were in­deed once a weapon of the North Korean state.) Star Of The North be­gins 12 years later, as her twin sis­ter Jenna is re­cruited by the CIA to go in search of her sib­ling. Thus far, then, it’s in tra­di­tional thriller ter­ri­tory.

Where John’s work de­parts from the genre is in its heart­break­ing scenes of star­va­tion and ter­ror, of neigh­bour in­form­ing on neigh­bour and of chil­dren or­phaned and left to beg by the state’s law that three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily must pay for any thought crime. (In North Korea, even al­low­ing a picture of leader Kim Jong Un to get dusty is a pun­ish­able of­fence.)

The mor­tal hard­ships of the labour camps, hu­man ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, the tor­ture of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and the hypocrisy of an elite who live lav­ishly while or­di­nary cit­i­zens are con­demned are all foren­si­cally ex­am­ined.

The book even fea­tures the coun­try’s semi-se­cret ar­moured train, whose 17 bul­let-proof car­riages, painted dark green with a sun­shine yel­low stripe, are stocked with ev­ery­thing from fine French wines to satel­lite comms. It made a rare real-world ap­pear­ance in March this year trans­port­ing the North Korean leader to Bei­jing.

It is, how­ever, the char­ac­ters that res­onate. From the de­cent Colonel Cho, an emis­sary to the UN who hu­mil­i­ates him­self by telling New York­ers that Kim Jong Il in­vented the ham­burger (a ‘true fact’ in North Korea) to the aged Mrs Moon, who dis­cov­ers a la­tent tal­ent for black-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, the au­thor re­minds us that ‘the peo­ple’ are di­vis­i­ble from the regime.

Says John: ‘North Kore­ans are com­pletely nor­mal: they worry about their ca­reers, fret about money, find joy in their chil­dren, drink too much bad beer… it’s just that they do it un­der the most per­fect form of tyranny the world has ever seen.

‘Their coun­try is in ru­ins. You criss-cross it on roads cratered and bro­ken and glimpse women wash­ing clothes in pol­luted rivers, men break­ing rocks by hand in the fields and oth­ers do­ing noth­ing and wait­ing for noth­ing. Sad­dest of all are the chil­dren who should be in school get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion, who are sim­ply prac­tis­ing for mass gym­nas­tic dis­plays.

‘Who can for­get the crowds af­ter Kim Jong Il’s death was an­nounced in 2011? It was as if they were un­der a spell, pros­trat­ing them­selves in the snow and ap­peal­ing to the sky with their hands. It was all about fear – even the chil­dren un­der­stood the gu­lag was wait­ing for any­one who shed too few tears.’

This was the im­age that fi­nally per­suaded John to go to North Korea. He was work­ing as a chil­dren’s books edi­tor in 2012 when he pub­lished his first novel, set in Hitler’s Ber­lin, and then took a sab­bat­i­cal for the trip that would give him such rich ma­te­rial for his sec­ond. Later he im­mersed him­self in Korean cul­ture, with two tem­po­rary moves to South Korea, once that same year to start his book and again in 2016 to fin­ish it.

His tim­ing could hardly be bet­ter – the novel is ben­e­fit­ing from a global PR cam­paign headed by Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong Un, who have just made a diplo­matic swerve away from nu­clear apoca­lypse by agree­ing to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Their his­toric peace talks, her­alded by the re­lease last Wed­nes­day of three US cit­i­zens ac­cused of spy­ing by North Korea, will draw the world’s gaze to what John la­bels a ‘hered­i­tary Marx­ist monar­chy’. They’re still un­likely to do much for its tourist in­dus­try, though. The au­thor can now never go back. ‘I don’t think that would be wise,’ he says, de­spite the en­cour­ag­ing slo­gan on a T-shirt given to him as a me­mento of his last visit, which says ‘See you in Py­ongyang!’ ‘Star Of The North’ by D B John is pub­lished by Harvill Secker, priced £12.99

‘Even the chil­dren un­der­stand the gu­lag is wait­ing for any­one’

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