Tag Archives: North Korea

Review: The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church

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CorpseintheKoryoThe Corpse in the Koryo by James Church (Minotaur, 2006)

Blurb: Against the backdrop of a totalitarian North Korea , one man unwillingly uncovers the truth behind series of murders, and wagers his life in the process.

Sit on a quiet hillside at dawn among the wildflowers; take a picture of a car coming up a deserted highway from the south. Simple orders for Inspector O, until he realizes they have led him far, far off his department’s turf and into a maelstrom of betrayal and death. North Korea’s leaders are desperate to hunt down and eliminate anyone who knows too much about a series of decades-old kidnappings and murders—and Inspector O discovers too late he has been sent into the chaos.

This is a world where nothing works as it should, where the crimes of the past haunt the present, and where even the shadows are real. A corpse in Pyongyang’s main hotel—the Koryo—pulls Inspector O into a confrontation of bad choices between the devils he knows and those he doesn’t want to meet. A blue button on the floor of a hotel closet, an ice blue Finnish lake, and desperate efforts by the North Korean leadership set Inspector O on a journey to the edge of a reality he almost can’t survive.

This is a wonderful book. The author was an intelligence officer, and his characterization of North Korea is amazing. His Inspector O takes the shortages and paranoia in stride–although he does long for a cup of tea–and combines them with a deep love of North Korean culture. The lines of poetry at the start of each section are beautiful.

The mystery that Inspector O is called upon to solve is not really the story here, which is as it should be. As Inspector O mentions, “what you see is what you get” has no meaning in North Korea. There’s an entire hidden dimension to every interaction, no matter how seemingly ordinary, and even the simplest task is complicated by political and social implications. “Justice” as we know it is an illusion.

I definitely want to keep reading this series.

My rating: 4 stars

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

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OrphanMasterSonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012), 2013 winner of Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Blurb: An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

I wanted to like this book a little more than I actually did, but it’s stil a tremendous read.

The structure is a bit difficult, as it jumps backward and forward in time and shifts between third person singular and first person plural POV (the latter being very unusual and used to superb effect here), but once you get used to it that ceases to be a problem. The writing style is just fantastic. There’s humor laced with irony, and the author walks that fine line: Kim Jong Il is treated as a joke who is also a brutal dictator. Everyone in the book is painfully aware of the consequences of viewing him simply as a buffoon.

The author delves into the consequences of a true democratic people’s republic: the loss of privacy, individuality, and ultimately of self. The only Individual allowed to exist, and whose story is known to all, is the Dear Leader. Everyone else is part of the collective. And because everyone else is disposable, who someone is can change in the blink of an eye.

My rating: 5 stars