Star of the North

Star of the North

by D. B. John


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“A thrilling tale of abduction and escape in North Korea....highly entertaining." —The Washington Post

A propulsive and ambitious thriller about a woman trying to rescue her twin sister from captivity in North Korea, and the North Korean citizens with whom she forms an unlikely alliance

Star of the North opens in 1998, when a Korean American teenager is kidnapped from a South Korean beach by North Korean operatives. Twelve years later, her brilliant twin sister, Jenna, is still searching for her, and ends up on the radar of the CIA. When evidence that her sister may still be alive in North Korea comes to light, Jenna will do anything possible to rescue her—including undertaking a daring mission into the heart of the regime. Her story is masterfully braided together with two other narrative threads. In one, a North Korean peasant woman finds a forbidden international aid balloon and uses the valuables inside to launch a dangerously lucrative black-market business. In the other, a high-ranking North Korean official discovers, to his horror, that he may be descended from a traitor, a fact that could mean his death if it is revealed. As the novel progresses, these narrative strands converge and connect in surprising ways, ultimately building to an explosive and unforgettable climax.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525573852
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 236,924
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

D. B. JOHN was born in Wales. He began training as a lawyer but switched to a career in publishing, editing popular children's books on history and science. In 2009 he moved to Berlin, Germany, to write his first novel, Flight from Berlin. A visit to North Korea in 2012 inspired Star of the North. He lives in Angel, London.

Read an Excerpt

JUNE 1998
The sea was calm the day Soo-Min disappeared.
She was watching the boy make a fire out of driftwood. The tide was rumbling in, bringing towering clouds that were turning an ashy pink. She hadn’t seen a single boat all day and the beach was deserted. They had the world to themselves.
She pointed her camera and waited for him to turn his head. “Jae-hoon . . .?” Later, the photograph she took would show a strong-limbed youth of nineteen with a shy smile. He was dark for a Korean and had a dusting of salt on his shoulders, like a pearl fisher. She handed him the camera and he took one of her. “I wasn’t ready,” she said, laughing. In this photograph she would be in the act of sweeping her long hair from her face. Her eyes were closed, her expression one of pure contentment.
The fire was catching now, wood groaning and splitting. Jae-hoon placed a battered pan onto the heat, balancing it on three stones, and poured in oil. Then he lay beside her where the sand was soft and warm, just above the high-tide mark, resting on his elbow and looking at her. Her necklace, later the object of such sorrow and remembrance, caught his eye. It was a thin silver chain with a tiny silver pendant in the shape of a tiger, representing the Korean tiger. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Soo-min pressed his hand to her breast and they began to kiss, foreheads pressed together, lips and tongues caressing. He smelled of the ocean, and spearmint, and cuttlefish, and Marlboros. His wispy beard scratched her chin. All these details, everything, she was already telling her sister in the airmail letter she was unconsciously composing in her head.
The oil began to spit in the pan. Jae-hoon fried a cuttlefish and they ate it with chili paste and rice balls, watching the sun sink to the horizon. The clouds had turned to flame and smoke, and the sea was an expanse of purple glass. When they finished eating he took out his guitar and began singing “Rocky Island” in his quiet, clear voice, looking at her with the firelight in his eyes. The song found the rhythm of the surf, and she felt a blissful certainty that she would remember this all her life.
His singing stopped midnote.
He was staring in the direction of the sea, his body as sprung as a cat’s. Then he threw aside the guitar and leapt to his feet.
Soo-min followed the line of his gaze. The sand was cratered and lunar in the firelight. She could see nothing. Just the breakers thundering in a dim white spume that fanned out flat on the sand.
And then she saw it.
In a small area beyond the breaking surf, about a hundred yards from the shoreline, the sea was beginning to churn and boil, stirring the water to pale foam. A fountain was rising, just visible in the dying light. Then a great jet of spray shot upward with a hiss, like breath from a whale’s blowhole.
She stood up and reached for his hand.
Before their eyes the roiling waters were beginning to part, as if the sea were splitting open, revealing a black, glistening object.
Soo-min felt her insides coiling. She was not superstitious, but she had a visceral feeling that something malefic was making itself evident. Every instinct, every fiber in her body, was telling her to run.
Suddenly a light blinded them. A beam surrounded by an orange halo was coming from the sea and was focused on them, dazzling them.
Soo-min turned and pulled Jae-hoon with her. They stumbled in soft, deep sand, abandoning their possessions. But they had taken no more than a few steps when another sight stopped them dead in their tracks.
Figures in black masks were emerging from the shadows of the dunes and running toward them, holding ropes.
Date: June 22, 1998, Case ref: 734988/220598
REPORT by the Incheon Metropolitan Police at the request of the National Police Agency, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Orders were to determine whether the two missing persons last sighted at 14:30 on June 17 had departed Baengnyeong Island prior to their disappearance. Respectfully submitted by Inspector Ko Eun-tek:

   1. Security video images procured from the Baengnyeong Island Ferry Terminal establish to a high degree of certainty that no one resembling the missing persons boarded the ferry during any of its departures within the relevant time. Conclusion: the missing persons did not leave the island via the ferry.

   2. The coast guard reported no other shipping in the area at the time of the missing persons’ last sighting. Due to the island’s proximity to North Korea, marine traffic is highly restricted. Conclusion: the missing persons did not depart the island by any other boat.

   3. A local resident discovered yesterday, next to the remains of a campfire on Condol Beach, a guitar, footwear, items of clothing, a camera, and wallets containing cash, return ferry tickets, IDs, and library cards belonging to the missing persons. IDs for both persons match the personal details supplied by Sangmyung University. They belonged to:

Park Jae-hoon, male, 19, permanent resident of the Doksan District of Seoul, whose mother lives on Baengnyeong Island.

Williams Soo-min, female, 18, United States citizen, who arrived in the country in March to enroll as an undergraduate.

   4. At 07:00 today the coast guard commenced an air-sea helicopter search operation over a range of 5 nautical miles. No trace of the missing persons was found. Conclusion: both persons drowned by misadventure while swimming. The sea was calm but currents have been unusually strong, according to the coast guard. The bodies may by now have been carried some considerable distance.

With your agreement, we will now suspend the helicopter search, and humbly recommend that the missing persons’ families be informed.

Reading Group Guide

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel. If you have not finished reading the book, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.

1. In Chapter 2 of Star of the North, balloons carrying Choco Pies drop into the North Korean countryside. Who do you think sent these mysterious packages, and why did they send them? What effect did they have on the North Korean people who discovered them?

2. Many moments in Star of the North focus on the ways in which power operates. Can you draw out some of the different power displays in the text? You might choose to discuss this on a micro-level, such as in the mannerisms of the U.S. secretary of state in Chapter 9, or on a macro-level, considering the forms of social control employed by the Kim dynasty in North Korea.

3. In Chapter 10, it is said that ‘You don’t know yourself until you know hunger.’ [p. 71] How is hunger, and therefore food, weaponized in Star of the North? How does the availability of food in the U.S., as experienced by Colonel Cho in an American diner in Chapter 12, underline vast differences in life as it is experienced in North Korea and in Western countries?

4. In Chapter 18, Jenna and Cho fall into a heated exchange regarding human rights abuses. Consider the following comment that Cho makes to Jenna:

“ ‘Socialism faces many dangers,’ he said. ‘The United States also has enemies who threaten its way of life.’ He leaned forward, his face an expression of cynical savoir faire. “It treats them in much the same way, I believe.’ ” [p. 146.]

What do think Cho is implying about Western “imperialism” and U.S. foreign policies?

5. In Star of the North, why do you think religious worship is persecuted in North Korea? Why might religious freedom affect the cult of personality connected to the Kim dynasty?

6. Many elements of the North Korean political regime depicted in this book seem stranger than fiction, such as the Seed Bearing Program and cross generational guilt by association. Other aspects, such as scenes of graphic torture in prison camps, are difficult to witness, even as readers. Were you surprised to learn that these features were drawn from real accounts of defectors from North Korea?[1]

7. Take a moment to consider and discuss the lives that residents of Pyongyang lead in comparison to North Koreans elsewhere in the state. Do you think that those inside the borders of the city are aware of the harsh realities of those who face famine and other deprivations? In what ways could you see Pyongyang residents in this book as also controlled by the Kim dynasty?

8. When Jenna encounters Kim Jong Il aboard his private train, he attempts to blackmail her into withdrawing her report to the White House, which had been positively received and promoted by the U.S. secretary of state. In the report, Jenna had proposed a radical revision of U.S. foreign policy towards North Korea, including suggestions to “sweep away all sanctions and embargos” and “all restrictions on travel, banking, and trade”. [p. 354] Why would Kim Jong Il see this as an attack on his regime?

9. In Chapter 54, Cho is surrounded by the People’s Armed Police on the G1212 Shenyang-Jilin Expressway in China. Experiencing an unexpected sense of calm as he faces his end, he exits his car and leaps into the dark void of the valley under the expressway and, “As he fell, with the wind rushing through his hair, he released all need to understand, all need to know. And in that moment he understood everything.” [p.372.]

Why does Cho choose to jump into the valley instead of being captured by the police? What do you think he ‘understands’ in this moment?

10. Throughout Star of the North, Mrs. Moon is extraordinarily resourceful and resilient. This is seen in her abilities to survive famines and the brutal conditions of the prison camp, as well as in her cunning negotiation skills. What drives Mrs. Moon to survive, and where does she find her strength?

11. Could you see this book as one of a series? How do you imagine the storyline of a sequel would unfold? How might it include Books, Cho’s son in North Korea, and Soo-min’s son in the U.S.? How could the plot be driven by relations between North Korea and the U.S. in the years that have followed the time in which Star of the North is set?

[1] This is revealed in the Author’s Note, pp 387-95.

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Star of the North: A Novel 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A thorough immersiin in North Korean culture by an excellent writer. Characters that pull you through to the end and a world enigmatic in its ferociousness to its citizens. In the end I feel lucky for the priviedge of true freedom.
Anonymous 12 months ago
Do not overlook the Authors Note. Enlightening and eye-opening book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Best book I’ve read in a very long time. A must read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Astounding. Informative. Different. I will never forget the info in this book. Read his previous book and was good. Can't wait for the next one. Please read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intensely gripping, a must read!
KarenfromDothan More than 1 year ago
Star of the North refers to Kim Jong Il, the second supreme leader of North Korea, who according to propaganda was the guiding start of the 21st century. This work of fiction revolves around three very different individuals, Jenna Williams, Korean-American CIA agent; Colonel Cho, a high ranking official in the regime; and Mrs. Moon, a lowly peasant struggling to survive. If you didn’t know how utterly brutal and inhumane the NK regime was before reading this book you most certainly will when you’re done. The story is based on fact and you can tell the author has done his homework. He does a terrific job of weaving the three story lines together, and his depiction of life in North Korea is shockingly vivid. He shows it as it is, a dark, foreboding country fraught with danger. This is a timely story given the current state of affairs. It’s a fast paced, deeply affecting thriller and it is definitely a worthwhile read.