Mystery, Diplomacy in North Korea

Article excerpt

Byline: Barbara Slavin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It is rare that the third in a literary series surpasses those that came before. But in Bamboo and Blood, author James Church has written a book that succeeds on multiple levels.

Set in North Korea, New York and Geneva, it is, at one level, a page-turner about the investigation into the death of a North Korean diplomat's wife under mysterious circumstances abroad. It is also a political novel, depicting the desperate diplomacy that led North Korea to try to trade missiles for food in the mid-late 1990s during a famine that may have killed 10 percent of its population. Finally, it is a spy story in the tradition of John le Carre, full of suspense, cynicism and intrigue.

James Church is a pseudonym for the author, a former CIA analyst. Among the few Americans to have spent time in North Korea, he manages to convey the awfulness of the regime without diminishing the humanity of the North Korean people.

Inspector O, the George Smiley-like hero of the mysteries, acknowledges the brutality, pettiness and corruption of North Korea yet remains a patriot who resists multiple opportunities to defect. The grandson of a genuine hero in Korea's war for independence against Japan, Mr. O is first and foremost a cop, trying to do his job despite incredible constraints.

Those constraints are indeed daunting. The North Korea Mr. Church presents is a shambolic place where little works and even relatives of the police are beginning to die from hunger. Two meals a day, very healthy, Inspector O's boss tells Mr. O at one point. Isn't that what they say on the radio? If two is healthy, what do we call one meal a day? Or does hot water count as nourishment now? The two men share a meal of bark-flavored soup in a Pyongyang cafe. Inspector O spots an old woman and a young girl walking together on a street in the capital and wonders which will survive the winter. He describes his country as a nation of shriveled leaves floating on a doomed river toward the falls. A winter of endless sorrow.

Into this dreary world pops a colorful foreigner named Jeno who at first seems to be Swiss or Hungarian but is actually from the Israeli spy service, the Mossad. …