Star of the North, by D.B. John

Eight stars

After almost literally stumbling upon D.B. John’s political and social thriller, I could not help but be pulled into the middle of this sensational tale. Full of insight and political spin, John depicts the struggle—both within and from the outside—to understand North Korea under its brutal dictatorship. In 1998, a young American, Soo-min Williams, is kidnapped from a beach in South Korea by operatives of the North. Twelve years later, the victim’s sister, Jenna, has not given up hope, even as the South Korean police are sure that Soo-min drowned. Jenna understands the region quite well and has risen the academic ranks, likely fuelled by what’s happened to her sister. When Jenna is approached by the CIA to help better understand North Korea during an attempt to negotiate peace, she agrees. During the first summit in Washington, Jenna meets a newly minted North Korean official, Colonel Cho, who is baffled at what he sees in America. Still, Cho returns home to speak of how well received the North Koreans were and how America is quaking in its boots, all part of the indoctrination of the people. In a parallel narrative, the reader learns of a North Korean peasant woman, Madam Moon, who is trying her best to survive under the Kim regime, limited in knowledge and freedoms, but forced to hear and believe how wonderful the Great Leader is at every breath. When Jenna arrives for a second peace summit in Pyongyang, she has her work cut out for her, particularly when she is sure her sister is being held in a secret prison as part of a conniving plan to create spies for the North. She vows not to leave without knowing her sister will be free, as Colonel Cho wrestles with new information that could end his career and see him killed. Madam Moon suffers from within the lowest class of the population, seeking to carve out what she feels is right, even if that means speaking out against the brutal dictatorship that put her there. All this, as Camp 22 becomes more likely for those who speak out against Kim. The drama intensifies as D.B. John weaves this fantastic tale that leaves little to the reader’s imagination. Recommended to those who love tales of political upheaval as well as the reader who finds stories of personal growth to their liking.

As I said above, I almost missed this wonderful book and allowed it to gather electronic dust on my iPod. Not able to access the next book I had in mind, I decided to take a chance on this long since forgotten book that I loaded soon after it was published. Soon, I was hooked on a story that took me behind the darkened borders and into North Korea, full of its propaganda and strict leader worship of all things Kim. The politics both within the country and reactions by America created a narrative that I could not help but love. Jenna Williams is a mixed-race woman who has never struggled with her situation in life, but has come to understand both her American roots and Korean ancestry. The kidnapping of her twin, Soo-min (Susie) a dozen years before has fuelled a passion within her to better understand what happened and how she might rectify the situation, even if it means trying to get inside North Korea. Her drafting by the CIA to help understand the North Koreans is the foothold she needs and she leaps at the opportunity. However, the most closed-off country in the world has its own secrets, ones that cannot be plotted on paper or through academic study. Jenna’s story, as well as those of the other two narratives, serve to shape the strength of this novel throughout and keep the reader informed of all angles that D.B. John wishes to present. His detailed development of backstory and character building has the reader wanting to know everything they can, as the narrative gains momentum. With a handful of perfectly placed characters, the story’s plot thickens with every chapter and the reader cannot help but want to know more. John develops a story that mixes politics with personal struggle and an insight into the world of true suppression, peppering the narrative with the type of propaganda that is used to spoon-feed the masses into blind hero worship. One can only wonder how close to the truth John’s writing is, though the reader can judge the realistic nature of what he presents. This is not a story of sunshine and rainbows, but rather hard truths and bleakness for many in a country most of the outside world will never hope to see for themselves.

Kudos, Mr. John, for shedding some light on an otherwise dank subject. I will be looking for more of your work soon (and those you recommend in the author’s note), to better understand the region.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: