James Church is the pen name of a veteran American intelligence officer who spent several decades in Asia. He writes about North Korea. Not about the high military government as such, but of a few middle ranking government officers dealing with a crisis about to erupt. He offers a picture of ordinary people going about their usual work with mixed feelings about those in charge of the nation.
The story is told by Inspector O of the Pyonyang district police. We first meet him on an early morning stake-out of the southern highway with instructions to photograph a certain car. A black Mercedes comes from the south at high speed; he clicks the shutter, but the camera’s battery is dead. Typical government equipment; but the car had no license plates anyway.
Back at the police office, Chief Inspector Pak is conferring with a Captain Kim from joint headquarters, and a Deputy Director Kang from the Investigations Department. After several questions, Kang tears a page from his notebook, hands it to O. “Here’s my number. Call me this afternoon at two o’clock.”
Inspector O is observant enough to know that Kim and Kang are not who they say they are, but his chief tells him, “Drop it. Enough.’’ Developments that week indicate that “all hell is going to break loose soon”, but nobody knows what or exactly when. Or why. It will be O’s job to find out in time to prevent it, in spite of competing instructions from Pak, Kim, and Kang. Brief messages are given him through the most unlikely people – an old lady in a street market, a farmer, a soldier on traffic duty, and many others, each directing O to various towns mostly along the Chinese border, where some other agent will be waiting. Or, in some cases, will have been killed before he gets there. [The book’s map of Korea is helpful in following all this.]
The plot is challenging. It’s not always easy to identify who is speaking at the moment. But the story’s main advantage is that we see something more of North Korea than repeated TV videos of nuclear missiles and goose-stepping soldiers. There are real people living there. Ancient Korean poets are quoted; grandparents’ advice is recalled, even among the violent scenes.
“I like my place,” O tells us, “People say hello when they pass you in the hall, partly to make sure you don’t knock them over in the dark corridors, but also from friendliness. A group of old ladies, widows of war veterans, was assigned rooms on the lower floors so they wouldn’t have to walk up so many stairs. In good weather they sit outside and watch the road that runs in front of the building. They enjoy the idea of having an inspector from the Ministry of People’s Security living in their building; they think it gives the place a certain status, and imagine that if word spread it would keep the area free of burglars.
“Soon after I moved in, a few of them cornered me to insist it was not right that I was unmarried. They waved aloft a list of girls for me to meet. Heading the list, they said, was a beauty from Kaesong, a good cook whose noodle dishes were worthy of the country’s old capital, and would be waiting for me each night. I told them that if I got married, it would mean moving out of my tiny single room, and if I moved away, which I certainly would, they would be left without a resident police inspector. I never saw the girls’ names, nor heard again of noodles.”
The number on the piece of paper from Kang was only a switchboard. O told the operator he wanted to speak to Deputy Director Kang.”
“Everyone here is a deputy director,” she said. “The lot of them, And I have three Kangs. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“How about the Investigations Department?”
“Better. I do have one there.”
“That’s fine. Do you suppose I could talk with him?”
“Could be, but you’ll have to be patient. This switchboard is being upgraded, and they’ve got wires crossed all the way from here to the border. In case I lose you, what’s your ID?” He gave his name and number. “Okay Inspector, hang on, here we go.”
After some buzzing and clicks, another voice. “Hello.” My watch said 2:05.
“Inspector O here. .”
“Inspector, I know who you are, and you’re late.”
“Blame it on the switchboard.”
“I’ve been reviewing your file.”
Rarely a good sign.
“I’ll tell you what Kang. we’re each busy, in our own way; Why don’t we have a beer?”
A slight pause, then a short laugh. “I thought you’d never ask, Inspector. I’ll meet you at the Koryo Hotel, say at six o’clock. Precisely.”