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A novel look at North Korea

A former U.S. agent's mystery novels set in the reclusive nation capture the bizarre, dysfunctional state of North Korean society. His Inspector O, he says, typifies the sane people he met there.

May 02, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Meet Inspector O, a detective with North Korea's Ministry of People's Security. He is a man who loves his country but harbors a knowing skepticism about its leadership.

He rolls his eyes at the communist propaganda and balks at wearing the red lapel pin of founder Kim Il Sung that is de rigueur for North Koreans. He struggles to keep his humanity in an authoritarian and increasingly corrupt society.

But Inspector O isn't real. He is the fictional protagonist of a series of detective novels by a former Western intelligence officer who uses the pseudonym James Church.

Church is convinced that in his frequent trips to Pyongyang, he has met many Inspector Os -- that is to say, modern, clear-thinking people whose very existence proves there is intelligent life within the North Korean system.

"Inside the regime, whose face people see only through stereotypes, there is in fact a society of individuals who behave in recognizable ways," Church said during a recent trip to Beijing.

What Church will allow to be published about himself is this: He is a little over 60. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley and now lives somewhere between New York and Washington. He got hooked on North Korea in the 1970s when a colleague at an intelligence agency approached him about a post analyzing the country's propaganda.

"But I don't know anything about North Korea," Church protested at the time.

"That's OK. Nobody else does either," his colleague replied.

So Church spent about 20 years reading the famously vitriolic editorials produced by the Pyongyang-controlled media, parsing the subtle differences between a "shameless gangster" and a "brazen-faced hooligan." He later served in other foreign policy jobs that allowed him to travel frequently to North Korea. He says he's made about 30 trips.

A few years ago, Church was waiting for a visa to North Korea while sitting in one of the dusty overstuffed chairs of a dimly lighted North Korean consulate when the thought struck him that the country was so, well, mysterious, that it really deserved to be the setting for a mystery novel. The result was "A Corpse in the Koryo," published in 2006. The fourth installment (and possibly last, according to Church) is due out this year and might address the question of who will succeed the nation's ailing leader, Kim Jong Il.

The hero of these stories, O (a common Korean surname, usually Romanized as Oh), is a Pyongyang cop working behind a worn wooden desk in a cold, dimly lighted office so poorly funded that there is no kettle for tea. Or, for that matter, gasoline or camera batteries. Assigned to investigate homicides (the first being that of a guest staying in Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel), O stumbles into the thick of international intrigue.

Government missile sales, abductions, nuclear proliferation, drug running -- Church doesn't need to make anything up; it all comes straight off North Korea's rap sheet.

The first novel touches on North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1980s. The plot of "Bamboo and Blood," the most recent work, revolves around an Israeli effort to persuade North Korea to stop selling missiles to Arab countries in return for economic assistance. All three novels feature struggles between O's Ministry of Public Security (basically the police) and Big Brother-like agencies wielding political power.

It is perhaps the most explicitly political of the novels so far, set during the 1990s famine.

"Two meals a day, very healthy. Isn't that what they say on the radio? If two is healthy, what do we call one meal a day? Or does hot water count as nourishment now?" O complains to his boss.

Later in the book, O meets with a cigar-smoking North Korean diplomat who tells him about his instructions from Pyongyang for the latest round of arms talks in Geneva.

"My job is to bluff and to stall. And when that doesn't work, I have backup instructions to stall and to bluff."

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North Korea is such an indescribably strange place that few works of nonfiction have come close to capturing it the way Church manages to in his novels. His descriptions of this most dysfunctional country ("fields of rotting brown stubble") have delighted North Korea junkies who have struggled to find their own words.

"He's got the atmosphere dead on," said Donald Gregg, former CIA station chief and later ambassador to South Korea.

Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute, a nonproliferation think tank, wrote in the group's newsletter that Church's first book is the "best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has survived all these years when the rest of the communist world capitulated to the global market a decade ago."

Readers have speculated that the novels contain clues to sensitive intelligence information. In his commentary, Hayes discussed a long-running joke in the first novel in which Inspector O kept trying to score a cup of tea.

"Is the shortage of thermoses in the novel actually a code for missing centrifuges that used all the aluminum tubes in the country?"

For the record, the books were submitted for vetting to his former intelligence agency. Nothing was deleted, he said.

"They don't take fiction too seriously, and they shouldn't," Church said. "A lot of this I just made up."

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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