Saturday, 5 May 2018

D B John on writing Star of the North

Most foreign visitors to North Korea are obliged to make the pilgrimage to Mangyongdae. It was in this village, just outside Pyongyang, that Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, was born in 1912. On a wooded hill nearby our guide led us to a view of the Taedong River. A starry look came into his eyes as he recounted yet another legend from Kim’s life. ‘It was in this spot,’ he said, gazing into the distance, ‘that our Great Leader, as a young boy, would sit thinking so deeply upon the suffering of his people that the ox he was minding would find its own way home…’
That did it. After a week in the country I had contracted propaganda sickness. It was 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, and the regime had been pulling out all the stops. I could listen to no more. I may have groaned. 

North Koreans grow up with these stories in the way that we in the West grow up with the Nativity and Easter – with one crucial difference. In North Korea the stories may never be doubted, by anyone. The cult of Kim is central to the regime’s power structures. It tolerates no heresy.

For a writer setting a thriller in North Korea, this was not without irony.

Such a rogue state has, over the years, behaved in ways that many people would find hard to understand, let alone believe. So just as we tourists were expected to accept cooked-up myths as historical truth, I would be drawing from genuine facts that were so much stranger than fiction that they risked straining all credulity.

Would anyone accept at face value the regime’s secret program of sending attractive female
agents abroad to have sex with men of other races? It happened. The aim was to breed children who looked foreign but who would be trained as North Korean spies. Or that the country’s diplomats overseas have doubled as crime bosses, raising funds by selling state-produced crystal meth? Some of the North’s criminal enterprises have never been fully explained. Why did it abduct random people from beaches across Asia and hold them in secluded compounds for decades? Weaving these elements into a cogent narrative without rendering the plot far fetched certainly had its challenges.

North Korea, sealed shut from the world, maintains its own reality. The rules of human behaviour are different there. Finding a path into that dark place and allowing the reader to see it and believe it was my goal in Star of the North.

STAR OF THE NORTH by D.B. John is published by Harvill Secker on 10 May.
North Korea and the USA are on the brink of war A young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island. The CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth. Now, she must go undercover in the world's most deadly state. Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister...and herself. 

The trailer can be seen below

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