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  • Published: 22 January 2019
  • ISBN: 9781784708184
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 448
  • RRP: $19.99

Star of the North



Baengnyeong Island
South Korea
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, lip and tongue 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.

  1. 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.



The seed of factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, must be eliminated through three generations.

–Kim Il-sung, 1970

Year 58 of the Juche Era




Washington, DC

First Week of October 2010

Jenna was jolted awake by her breath forcing up a shout.

She was breathing hard, eyes wide, her vision distorted in the lens of the nightmare. In the confused seconds between dream and waking she could never move her body. Slowly the dim dimensions of the room took shape. Steam hissed softly in the radiators, and the distant chimes of the clock tower counted the hour. She sighed and closed her eyes again. Her hand was at her neck. It was there, the thin silver necklace with the tiny silver tiger. It was always there. She threw off the duvet, feeling the chill air settle on her perspiring body like a linen veil.

An indent formed silently next to her on the bed. Amber-green eyes made mirrors in the faint light. Cat had materialized from nowhere, another dimension, as if summoned by the chimes. “Hey,” she said, stroking his head.

The clock radio switched a digit.

“-retary of state has condemned the launch as ‘a highly provocative act that threatens the region’s security …’”

The kitchen tiles were icy beneath her bare feet. She poured milk for Cat, microwaved the cold coffee she found in the pot, and sipped it, steeling herself for the backlog of voice mails on her phone. Dr. Levy had called to confirm her appointment for 9:00 a.m. The editor of East Asia Quarterly wanted to discuss the publication of her paper and asked, ominously, if she’d heard this morning’s news. The older messages were in Korean and all from her mother. She skipped through them to the original one—an invitation to lunch in Annandale on Sunday—in which her mother sounded dignified and hurt, and Jenna felt guilt rise inside her like an acid reflux.

Cradling her coffee, she stared out at the gloom of her yard but saw only the bright interior of her kitchen reflected in the window. She had to force herself to accept that the hollow-eyed, underweight thirty-year-old staring back at her was herself.

She found her sneakers and running pants in a heap beneath the piano stool, tied her hair back, and headed out into the cold on O Street, meeting the mailman’s unsmiling stare. That’s right, buddy, I’m black and I live in this neighborhood. She started to run through the halftones beneath the trees, down to the towpath. Georgetown had a Sleepy Hollow feel this morning. A chill Nor’easter carried leaves across a brushed-steel sky. Pumpkins leered from windows and doorsteps. She was sprinting before she’d even warmed up, the breeze from the canal blowing the bad dream from her hair.

The man gave a weary smile. “We won’t get anywhere if you won’t talk to me.” Beneath the coaxing Jenna sensed the bedrock of his boredom. On the notebook rested on his knee, he’d succumbed to a doodle. She was focusing on a pastry crumb lodged in his beard, just to the right of his mouth. “You say it’s the same nightmare?”

She exhaled slowly. “There are always variations, but it’s basically the same. We’ve been over it many times.” Without thinking, she touched the necklace at her throat.

“If we don’t get to the heart of it, you’ll keep having it.”

Her head slumped back on the couch. She searched the ceiling for words, but found none.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses and looked at her with a kind of exasperation and relief, as if he’d reached the edge of the map and could abandon the journey with a clear conscience. He closed his notebook.

“I’m wondering if you’d be better off seeing a bereavement counselor. Maybe that’s what’s wrong here? You’re still feeling your loss. It’s been twelve years, I know, but with some of us time heals more slowly.”

“No, thank you.”

“Then what are we doing here today?”

“I’m out of prazosin.”

“We’ve talked about this,” he said with an exaggerated patience. “Prazosin won’t address the original trauma that’s causing your—”

She got up and reached for her jacket. She had on her white shirt and slim-fit black pants, her work clothes. Her shiny black hair was tied back in a loose knot. “I’m sorry, Dr. Levy, I have a class in a few minutes.”

He sighed and reached for the pad on his desk. “All my patients call me Don, Jenna,” he said, scribbling. “I’ve told you that.”

The image appeared as if through a window in space. China was a million points of light, its new cities brash clusters of halogen and neon. Towns and villages without number glittered like diamonds in anthracite. In the lower right of the projector screen, the shipyards and container ports of Nagasaki and Yokohama blazed sodium amber into the night. Between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, South Korea was fringed with glowing coastal arteries, its vast capital, Seoul, a brilliant chrysanthemum. The center of the image, however, was a swath of darkness. It was not ocean; it was a country, a mountainous land of unlight and shadow, where only the capital city emitted a faint incandescence, an ember in the ash.

The class, seated in semicircular tiers around the lectern, gazed at the satellite picture in silence.

“As you all heard this morning,” Jenna said, “the North Koreans launched another Unha-3 rocket yesterday. If, as they claim, the technology is peaceful, and the kwangmyongsong satellite is in orbit to monitor crops, then this is the view they’ll have of their country by night …”

Kwangmyongsong as in, like, ‘bright star’?”

Jenna switched on the lectern lamp. A Korean American girl had asked the question. The name did sound ironic. In the galaxy of lights on the screen, North Korea was a black hole.

“Yes, or brilliant star or guiding star,” Jenna said. “The name is rich with symbolism in North Korea. Anyone know why?”

“The cult of the Kims,” said a boy in a Red Sox cap—another Korean, a defector Jenna had recommended for a scholarship.

She turned to the screen and flicked forward through shots of Pyongyang’s traffic-free boulevards, of triumphal arches and mass games, and found the image she was looking for. A quiver of mirth rippled across the room, but the faces of the students were rapt. The photograph showed rows of drab citizens bowing before a full-length portrait of a portly smiling man wearing a tight-fitting beige casual jacket and matching pants. It was surrounded by a display of red begonias, and beneath it a slogan in red-painted Korean script read: KIM JONG-IL IS THE GUIDING STAR OF THE 21ST CENTURY!

“In the official state mythology,” Jenna said, “the Dear Leader was born in 1942 in a secret guerilla base inside Japanese-occupied Korea. His birth was foretold by the appearance of a bright new star in the skies above Mount Paektu. He himself is sometimes called Guiding Star—kwangmyongsong.

From the back of the theater someone said, “Was his mother a virgin?” The class snickered.

At that moment the overhead lights blinked on and the dean entered. Professor Runyon, Jenna’s boss, was in his fifties, but his stooped shoulders, bow tie, and corduroy jacket made him seem about seventy, and his parched, thin-air voice closer to eighty.

“Have I missed a joke?” he said, peering at the class over his reading glasses. Leaning into Jenna’s ear he said, “I’m loath to interrupt, Dr. Williams. Would you come with me, please?”


In the corridor outside he said, “The provost just called me. We have a visitor from … some opaque government body.” He gave her a bemused smile. “He wants to meet you. Know anything about this?”

“No, sir.”

Star of the North D. B. John

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