On 19 December 2011 the North Korean public was told to stand by for an important announcement at noon. Many people, therefore, were gathered in front of television sets when Ri Chun-hee, the regime’s notorious news anchorwoman, appeared dressed in black. In a voice choking with emotion she announced that Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, who had ruled the country for seventeen years, had died. Working for the people until the very end, she said, he had suffered a heart attack on board his private train while travelling to one of his regular field guidance inspections. Even before she had finished speaking, a great outpouring of public grieving and mass hysteria was spilling into the streets.
But little about North Korea is ever as it seems.
A few days later a minor online article caught my eye. Satellite imagery revealed that Kim’s train had never left its station on the day of his death. This was one of those anomalies in the record, a loose stitch in the weave of events that invites a writer to slip through. How had Kim really died? The official account didn’t add up, and my mind was already filling the holes with fiction.
When I arrived in North Korea months four later with a small, tightly controlled tour group – twelve tourists, two minders and a driver – I had the bare outline of a story, but no characters.
Pyongyang, the capital, is a gigantic stage set, a show of power. The regime goes to great lengths to deter foreign visitors from peeking behind the scenery, touching the props, or questioning at the script. Two weeks of propaganda praising the Kims, novel at first, became extremely wearying. Yet most North Koreans acknowledge these shining legends uncritically, in the way people in the West might give little thought to the veracity of the Nativity. I was particularly struck by one immaculate young military officer who acted as our guide at the Demilitarized Zone, the weaponised wasteland that forms the border with South Korea. Handsome, uniformed and decorated, this was a member of the regime’s elite class, and a true believer. I watched his eyes fill up as he gave a paean to the recently departed Dear Leader – ‘working for the people’s cause to the very end… on board his train’ – and knew I had the makings of my first character in Star of the North.
STAR OF THE NORTH by D.B. John is published by Harvill Secker on 10 May.