Inspector O: Ex-intel officer spins detective series from experience
October 4, 2010
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — In the North Korea of author James Church, people are wary and weary of their government, but stubbornly proud of their homeland.
They live in a country where food is sometimes in short supply and the street lights are not usually turned on, but where the beauty of the mountains and the beaches complement the simple lives of its residents.
The secretive world comes alive in Church’s “Inspector O” series of novels in descriptive prose so accurate that experts who have seen North Korea from the inside say the books should be required reading for diplomats, military leaders and others seeking an understanding of the social and political fabric of the “Hermit Kingdom.”
“The books are not written from the inside out, that is, as if I were a North Korean,” Church said. “They are written from the perspective I knew best — positioned at the psychological boundaries where the two realities (that of the North Koreans and that of the outside world) come in contact.”
Church, a pseudonym, gathered his insights over many years as an “intelligence officer” from an undisclosed Western country. He says masking his identity is no publicity stunt — that “there are serious and compelling reasons” for him to do so.
Peter Hayes, executive director of the San Francisco-based Nautilus Institute public policy research group and considered one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea — said the novels go far beyond the two-dimensional view most people have about life in the isolated country.
“The reality of [North Korea] is grim enough without worrying about the imaginary nightmares that drive a lot of American policy,” Hayes said. “These books help Americans to understand what they are up against.”
Church told Stars and Stripes that while his books are fiction, “Art sometimes can do a better job of capturing crucial facets of reality than can an army of spies.
“It is certainly true that the books are well-salted with reality — people, places and events,” he said. “Many of the characters, and especially Inspector O, have the traits of people I ran across in my years dealing with the North.”
That said, Church said his books are not intended to give readers “a political science lesson. If I ever want to write a textbook on North Korea — which I don’t — I’ll take along several cases of scotch to a quiet place and do exactly that.”
‘Black box’ unlocked
The United States’ top diplomat for Asia told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month how frustrating it can be getting information about what is happening inside North Korea.
“In fundamental ways, North Korea is still a black box,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the committee. “We have some glimpses and some intelligence and the like, but the truth is — oftentimes in retrospect — some of that intelligence has proven to be wrong.”
He told Stars and Stripes that some of the best accounts of what is going on inside the rogue country can be found in Church’s fiction.
“I’ve learned more about North Korea from these novels than I have from any of the other things I have read or studied,” Campbell said of the four books. “I am not a fan; I am an enormous fan.”
Church’s Inspector O series began in 2006 with “A Corpse in the Koryo,” followed by “Hidden Moon” in 2007, “Bamboo and Blood” in 2008 and “The Man with the Baltic Stare,” which came out in August.
In the stories, Inspector O is tasked with solving crimes while working his way through the political minefields of North Korea’s intelligence community, ministries and other government entities.
In the latest novel, the inspector comes out of retirement to investigate a murder allegedly committed by a young man being groomed to be the leader of a transition government. The government is being put together behind-the-scenes by officials from the two Koreas, who are quietly working to maintain stability in the politically fragile North.
At one point, Inspector O defends his homeland against the suggestion that the entire North Korean system has been “a lie.”
“That word can’t cover how tens of millions of people lived their lives for nearly 70 years,” O says. “We had something to believe in, a way to order existence.
“Maybe people didn’t have much, most of them had very little, but for practically all of those years they felt they belonged to something,” O continues. “There was a simplicity in who we thought we were. We even had hope for the future.”
Hayes said he’s an Inspector O fan because of the sensory realism in the prose.
“I love seeing many of the small details of life as it is lived in the North — the smells, touch, sounds, light, color, in short the feel of the place,” he said.
Yet Church’s writing does not shy away big-picture themes, Hayes said, including “the various barracuda sharks that are circling the floating corpse of [North Korea], ready to bite great chunks of it for their own profit.”
Campbell said the people in Church’s stories have a sense of nationalist pride, even amidst depravations and challenges.
“I think he has managed to depict how a population can suffer and still remain loyal — that suffering is part of their destiny,” he said.
No ax to grind
Church said one of his goals in writing the books was to “get beyond the stereotypes and hackneyed descriptions [of North Korea] that are all too common in Western journalism and deeply embedded in the minds of most readers.”
“The Inspector O stories are not written to pass judgment,” he said.
“That infuriates some people, who feel that you can’t possibly write about North Korea without making a moral statement.
“If you do not explicitly and definitely condemn the regime in Pyongyang then, they conclude, you must somehow be condoning it. During my career, I always thought that approach was a barrier to learning about the North. It’s a bad way for intelligence professionals to do their business. It isn’t very good for mystery writers, either.”
Church said he has no “ideological or moral ax to grind,” and he leaves it up to his readers to reach their own conclusions about North Korea.
“The sun shines, schoolchildren run around, parents hold babies proudly, lovers sit close, deaths are mourned,” he said. “Political life, economic life, family life, personal life — these are not all the same thing in Pyongyang, any more than they are in Denver, or Liverpool, or Hamburg.
“All people live out their lives in intersecting, overlapping circles of existence,” Church said. “What is vital, and sometimes painful to watch, is how each individual copes, and how some — under great pressure — do a lot better than others.”
“How dark can life be in North Korea? I wouldn’t even begin to guess,” he said. “People who have known North Korea from the inside have said that the books accurately capture the atmosphere of the place, the light and the dark of it. If so, I’m pleased.”