OF THE NORTH
Publisher: Crown (May, 2018)
Publisher: Broadway Books, Reprint edition (February
Kindle edition: $13.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Jenna Williams never believed her twin sister had drowned while visiting South Korea. Her parents were devastated, but they wanted her to accept it so she could begin to heal. Jenna and So-Min, the daughters of a Korean mother and African-American father, did everything together, and were seldom apart. They had a bond so strong that Jenna knew she’d feel it if it was broken.
She earned a Ph.D. and became an assistant professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. She was an expert in all things Korean, both South and North, and the CIA wanted to recruit her, badly. When Charles Fisk tried to persuade her to join, she turned him down emphatically, but he had one last trick up his sleeve: evidence that her sister might still be alive and imprisoned in North Korea. That sealed the deal. If there was any chance she could find So-min, she’d do what it took.
Colonel Cho, a staunch supporter of the Dear Leader, Kim Jon-il, leads a comfortable life in Pyongyang with his wife and son. In part because of his fluency in English he was chosen to lead a delegation of government officials to New York. Kim’s plan was to do a little saber rattling with their nuclear program. He expected the Americans to plead with him to stop firing missiles, offering a ton of U.S. dollars to appease him. It had worked before, why not try it again?
Farther north, near the Chinese border, Mrs. Moon and her husband were having a hard time making ends meet. In that, they were no different from most North Koreans, but when her husband couldn’t work anymore things became dire. While seeking food in the woods, she stumbled across a balloon containing gifts from the outside world. If she didn’t turn it in to the authorities, she faced harsh penalties. If she kept the contraband, she could sell in on the black market and earn enough to set up her own food stand in town. Their lives couldn’t get much worse, but if this worked out they could have a better life. Off to market she went.
The lives of these three disparate persons would come together in unusual and life-changing ways. Colonel Cho’s visit to New York didn’t turn out as he expected. The city was vibrant and thriving, not a hot bed of depravity; the people were not the demons he’d been told they were. When he and Jenna met at a formal dinner, both felt an immediate, although wary, bond.
Mrs. Moon prospered for a while, but the Great Leader was a harsh master. Her bravery and outspokenness gave hope to her fellow villagers, and her kindness brought comfort to all who crossed her path. As her days wound down, she regretted only one thing: she’d lost her child.
THE STAR OF THE NORTH is an amazing, brilliantly written novel. The world recognizes the plight of the North Koreans under their cruel leaders in a vague fashion, but Mr. John has given readers a close up and very personal glimpse into their lives, from the privileged few at the top down to the misery and despair of those locked away in prison camps. Their crimes were simple, often manufactured, but the punishment was horrific and extended to three generations of their families.The characters are all fully-drawn, each and every one. The plot is a masterful intertwining of truth and fiction. The North Korean setting comes alive on the page; the reader sees all the mud and dirt and despair, smells the Korean cooking in the food stalls and the filth and mud and death. This is a powerful and enlightening book. Highly recommended.
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