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The Mystery of North Korea

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If you are curious to know what life is like in the darkest country in the world, try a mystery to ease into enlightenment.

Inspector O, detective for the Ministry of People’s Security, is given orders to hide on a hillside at dawn and take a picture of a certain black Mercedes coming up a deserted highway from the south in A Corpse in the Koryo.  Simple enough, except that nothing is as straightforward as it appears.  Called on the carpet for botching the assignment when the poorly made camera fails, O discovers that he is a pawn among competing political factions.  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 of betrayal.  A Corpse in the Koryo was named one of the best books of 2006.  James Church is a pseudonym for a western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia, and he clearly knows well the people of whom he writes.  And his writing is very well crafted.  First in a series, A Corpse in the Koryo is followed by Hidden Moon, Bamboo and Blood, and The Man with the Baltic Stare

Barbara Demick opens her book Nothing to Envy with an image of the complete darkness of North Korea, the result of a barely functioning power grid, starving, just as the people have been starved by a totalitarian regime.  Nothing to Envy is an oral history following the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, a chaotic period that saw the rise to power of Kim Jong-il, succeeding his dictator father, Kim Il-sung, and the devastation of a famine that killed one-fifth of the population, illustrating what it means to live under the most repressive regime today.  Mi-ran was born with “tainted blood” because her father was disgraced for winding up a South Korean POW.  She meets her young man, who is from a respectable family, in secret and walks with him for hours under cover of darkness, without touching, not even holding hands.  Although they care deeply for each other, she does not dare tell him of her plan to escape for fear that he and his family would be implicated or that he would be forced to inform on her.  A model citizen, Mrs. Song is a believer in the goodness of “the dear leader” until her immediate circumstances force her to see the light.  Dr. Kim, a dedicated physician, has no drugs to give her patients, and is stunned to find that dogs in China eat better than people in North Korea.  Kim Hyuck, a homeless orphan, survives by his wits on the streets.  Once in Seoul, each refugee goes through a lengthy debriefing to learn to adjust to life in the free world, sadly, a difficult process for many.  Reading this account is like watching a 60 Minutes or Sunday Morning or NBC Dateline story—utterly compelling as it shines a light on a society hidden from the rest of the world.  Nothing to Envy is nominated for a National Book Award.

The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo is a spare, poetic tale of a solitary man living on the Chinese border with North Korea.  His father taught him to closely observe the clues in nature to find the elusive ginseng and then to harvest it slowly, carefully, and with respect in order to preserve its value and insure future harvests.  His experience hunting ginseng becomes a metaphor for his relationship with a young Korean escapee hiding in a brothel.  She tells a harrowing tale of corruption, brutality, and fear.  When the madam offers to sell her to him, he realizes that “the price for her, ounce for ounce, is so much less than what I hunt and sell”.  A haunting tale.

Somewhere Inside: one sister’s captivity in North Korea and the other’s fight to bring her home is the story of Lisa Ling and her eventual release thanks to her sister’s determination and political pressure brought to bear on Kim Jong-il.  Here, at least, is one happy ending to a tale of North Korea.

The recent anointing of Kim Jong-un to take the place of his father suggests, however, that nothing is about to change for those trapped in the darkness of North Korea.  Life there remains nothing to envy.

For more about North Korea, visit us at or call 988-2541.

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