Humanise North Korea? O yes he can

James Church’s fictional detective uncovers nuances of life in Pyongyang

Kim Jong-il is never mentioned by name in James Church’s books but his influence as “the central” is everywhere in them. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong-il is never mentioned by name in James Church’s books but his influence as “the central” is everywhere in them. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


In the murky world of North Korean politics, you find heroes in the strangest places.

One such figure is Inspector O, a mysterious North Korean detective with a weakness for carving bits of wood and uncovering uncomfortable truths as he weaves his way through the conspiracy-filled world of Pyongyang.

James Church is the pseudonym of the fictional detective’s creator. Church is a former CIA intelligence officer who worked in east Asia and has visited North Korea more than 30 times. Through Inspector O, he gives a human face to a world often depicted as monstrous.

“The character had to fit into the real North Korea. 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,” said Church in an interview in a Beijing hotel.

The four books, which work both as detective novels and as political thrillers, began in 2006 with A Corpse in the Koryo , and depict efforts to solve crimes against a backdrop of Kafka-esque bureaucracy, government intrigue, hunger and deprivation.

Although Inspector O is not political, he has to deal with an oppressive political system, and through his thoughts and views we get an individual view of a totalitarian bureaucracy.

Often the powers that be initiate his investigations, then try to stop him finding out anything, urging him instead to follow procedure and file a report without meddling.

“The really fascinating thing was how do the North Koreans retain their humanity under that kind of pressure, because they really do. What keeps them balanced? North Korea is largely stereotyped in the public description. We do it to a lot of countries, not just North Korea, but it affects our ability to understand nuances about the people and the place.”

When he first thought of writing the books, Church 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 Raymond Chandler meets Kim Jong-il – it sounded like fun,” he said.

Kim Jong-il is never mentioned by name, but his influence as “the central” is everywhere in the books. The most recent, The Man with the Baltic Stare, came out shortly before Kim Jong-un ascended to power, although Church is working on the next Inspector O, which will depart considerably from the first four.

How did he find out how a police inspector works day to day in North Korea?

“Half is imagination, and half is putting together about what I know about how the North Koreans operate, how creepy it is in some cases, how it works against itself,” he said.

Inspector O is a communist blueblood in that he is the grandson of a great revolutionary leader, and a sympathetic figure, even though he sometimes adapts tough methods to get his information. O is no dissident, but gets into trouble for not wearing a Workers Party badge.

“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,” he said.

In Church’s view, North Korea is terrified of ending up on the wrong side of history. The only way it has of securing dialogue with the United States is by playing to its strengths. These strengths are not nuclear weapons, he said, but their ability to annoy the West.

“The regime in Pyongyang knows that as good as love and brotherhood may be, 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.”

The North Koreans felt abandoned when president George Bush declared it part of an “axis of evil” in 2002.

“We excite in them their worst paranoid fears about the outside. We reinforce those. We think we’ll frighten them into behaving. It wouldn’t work with most people and especially doesn’t work with Koreans, who are not very pliable in that respect,” he said.

What would Inspector O think of the current situation, where North Korea has raised fears of war in the region?

“Inspector O doesn’t like politics, he thinks it’s all shenanigans. He would wonder how it will upset his routine. How difficult will it make it for him to get a cup of tea?”