James Church: The man who knows too much about North Korea

The former CIA officer sets his crime novels in the Communist state after years of extraordinary access. Clifford Coonan met him in Beijing


Anyone seeking insight into the isolated pariah state of North Korea could do worse than turn to the work of “Inspector O” – a mysterious detective with a knack for weaving his way through the political conspiracies of Pyongyang in an attempt to solve crimes.

The creator of this fictional North Korean policeman is James Church – a pseudonym used by a former CIA intelligence officer who worked in East Asia for decades and has visited North Korea more than 30 times.

Beginning with A Corpse in the Koryo, published in 2006, Church has drawn on his knowledge of the secretive state to pen four more crime thrillers for the Inspector O series.

In the novels, Inspector O must deal with an oppressive political system, giving the reader an insight into the machinations of a totalitarian bureaucracy.

All too often the powers that be initiate his investigations, only to try to stop him from discovering anything, urging him instead to just file a report. Sympathetic superior officers wrestle with their admiration for his skill, while fearing that his ability will cause them problems in a system where a level of incompetence is necessary for career survival.

Church says Inspector O is intended to portray the human face of North Korea – as an ordinary policeman attempting to do his job against a backdrop of Kafka-esque bureaucracy, government intrigue, and deprivation. It is a reaction, he says, to the way the world views Pyongyang through the actions of the ruling Kim family – specifically the regime’s recent threats of military action against South Korea and the US since the United Nations imposed sanctions after its third nuclear weapon test in February. Meanwhile much of the ordinary population suffers human rights abuses, poverty and famine.

“The character had to fit into the real North Korea,” Church told The Independent in a Beijing hotel. “It is very important to humanise the situation, and crystallise my experience of real people dealing with real problems in North Korea, with the additional problem of living under a social system that puts them under incredible pressure.”

Global interest in the inner machinations of the North Korean state has been piqued by its latest threats of nuclear conflict. The absence of facts from the secretive state, which shuns foreign journalists (demonstrated by the BBC’s recent efforts to get its reporters into North Korea posing as students), has provided a boost for fiction – this week’s Pulitzer prize for fiction was awarded to Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which recounts the adventures of an ordinary North Korean man called Jun Do. 

“The really fascinating thing is how [North Koreans] retain their humanity under that kind of pressure,” says Church. “It’s my sense that most readers will already have their minds made up about North Korea. I had to work around the familiar images and leave the discerning reader free to look at this world in a new way.”

Church says he was sitting in a North Korean consulate in the early 2000s when the idea for the books struck him. He wanted to bring the classic noir detective story to bear on a country that had long fascinated him. “It was a dare to myself, to see if someone could write a detective story set in North Korea. One of my first thoughts was [American detective fiction writer] Raymond Chandler meets Kim Jong-il – it sounded like fun.”

The leadership, including the young dictator Kim Jong-il who took over from his father Kim Jong-Un following his death in 2011, is never mentioned by name. The regime and its influence is instead referred to as “the central” in the books.

Church, who claims his identity must remain secret to allow him to continue travelling into North Korea undetected, says he has used his observations of everyday life there to inform the books. But there are some experiences he draws the line at.

“There were people who said to me, if you get arrested they will take you into an interrogation room and you’ll learn a lot about interrogation techniques,” says Church. “I said I don’t want to do that. Half is imagination, and half is putting together what I know about how North Korean [authorities] operate, how creepy it is in some cases, how it works against itself. I worked in a bureaucracy for a long time, so it’s not just Korea,” he said.

As the world ponders what to make of North Korea’s latest threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US, Church argues that the heated rhetoric merely shows the regime’s insecurity, and its desire to be noticed on the world stage.

“North Korea is terrified of being swept away, of ending up on the wrong side of history,” he says. “The regime knows that... for a poor, weak piece of mountainous real estate like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nothing is better than keeping everyone else off balance and royally annoyed.”

So, what would Inspector O think of the current situation? “Inspector O doesn’t like politics,” says Church. “He would wonder how it will upset his routine? How difficult will it make it for him to get a cup of tea?”

Anti-North protests spark threats

Pyongyang has issued new threats, vowing “sledge-hammer blows” of retaliation if South Korea did not apologise for anti-North Korean protests the previous day when the North was celebrating the birth of its founding leader.

The North also rejected what it called “cunning” US overtures for talks, saying it will not be humiliated into being dragged to sit at the negotiating table.

A senior US military official in South Korea said the North Korean leadership was looking for a way to cool down its rhetoric.

On Monday, the North dropped its shrill threats against the United States and South Korea as it celebrated the 101st anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, raising hopes for an easing of tension in a region that has for weeks seemed on the verge of conflict. Reuters

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