Review: A Corpse In the Koryo
Humans are natural storytellers. It’s well known that if you want to get your point across, the best way to do so is through a story. Some have even gone so far as to claim that we can gain insights from stories and literature that cannot be garnered through abstractions alone. This group might argue that there is a certain insight that just cannot be found in academic or nonfiction writing. For instance, David Lewis et al (citation below) compares the protrayal of NGOs in the official literature to their fictional counterparts in novels. Lewis et al claims that fiction provides us with a more reliable understanding of how the NGOs operate, perhaps by capturing certain feelings or attitudes.
I don’t necessarily believe that certain insights are only expressible through literature, but doing so with literary flair is certainly more interesting and can certainly reach a wider audience.
A perfect example of this type of literature is James Church’s A Corpse in the Koryo. On the surface, this novel appear to be a mystery, but dig deeper and you’ll find realistic (or so I’m told) scenes of North Korean life and society. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in breaking through the “moral lens” and the biases towards North Korea we are forced to endure in the West.
Church (a pseudonym) is said to be a former Western intelligence officer who specialized in North Korea and perhaps even traveled through and conducted business with the North. According to defectors stories and other experts on the North, Church hits the nail in the head.
A Corpse in the Koryo is the story of Inspector O, the grandson of a war hero, who finds himself caught up in a game of inter-agency warfare. Only, unlike inter-agency warfare in the West, the stakes in North Korea are life or death. This isn’t just your typical FBI/CIA turf battle. When Military Security and The Office of Investigations go head-to-head, the whole country goes on alert. Mysterious deaths, strange instructions and oddball characters abound in Church’s Pyongyang.
What’s even more interesting than the storyline is the little details about life in the North we find ourselves privy to: marriage, work, play, etc. We feel the palpable tensions and fear on the streets as we follow Inspector O through shady, drab cities, and he in turn is followed by agents from rival agencies. We learn about how various bureaucracies and ministries interact with one another and how business is conducted north of the DMZ. We learn about what the citizens must go through to travel, about the “second society” that is slowly developing, about how people cope with their day-to-day existences. We begin to understand why the country has survived for so long despite the death of International Communism and why it probably will continue to survive. The innards of North Korean civil society are laid bare for all to see. We observe how people can’t even get the most basic items like stoves and batteries (I should know, I had my own experience trying to track down batteries in the North), and of course, we feel O’s pain as he spends the novel searching for his elusive glass of tea.
My only complaint is that O does not come across as Korean enough. Based on my time in country (South Korea), O is not deferential to his elders enough and goes about with far more impunity for his actions than the typical Korean would. I feel as though Church tried to paint O with a film noir brush and in the process, damaged his essential “Korean-ness” Regardless, I can’t recommend this book enough.
The sequel, “Hidden Moon,” just came out and it is definitely on my to-read list.
Here’s another review by Peter Hayes at the Nautilus Institute. Hayes notes:
This novel should be required bedtime reading for President Bush and his national security team.”
Also, be sure and check out this podcast discussion from the Korea Society.
Lewis, David and Rodgers, Dennis and Woolcock, Michael (2005) The fiction of development : knowledge, authority and representation. Working Paper. London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.