Books: Inspector O and the case of Jon Yong Chol



THE MAN WITH THE BALTIC STARE: an Inspector O Novel, by James Church. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010. 279 pp. Can$29.99, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-312-37292-7. Reviewed by CanKor editor-in-chief Erich Weingartner.


A most unusual document reached us at CanKor early in August. It isn’t unusual for us to receive messages from the Pyongyang-based Korean Committee for Solidarity with the World People. We are obviously on the KCSWP mailing list, and have published a number of their documents right here on the CanKor website. Usually these concern anniversaries or special pronouncements by the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs.Not this time. Attached to the partially garbled email message was a file with an attention-grabbing title: “INTERVIEW WITH THE ARRESTED TERRORIST.” The email explains that Jon Yong Chol had been caught trying to perpetrate the “hideous crime of undermining the supreme dignity of the DPRK at the instructions of the U.S. and south Korean intelligence agencies.” He was subsequently interviewed by domestic and international reporters in Pyongyang on 19 July 2012.

I found it interesting that the DPRK scribes referred to this document throughout as an “interview” although – as you can see from the transcript – the hapless Jon Yong Chol clearly calls it a “confession”. Have DPRK translators become aware that the word “confession” elicits an emotionally negative response and wanted to give this document an air of objectivity? The email underlines repeatedly that the important thing to pay attention to is the identity of the ROK and US puppet masters, not the gullible individual who was close to committing the crime.

Jon’s confession is excruciatingly detailed, naming names, organizations and places. The goal behind a conspiracy to blow up monuments to Kim Il Sung (the “statue demolition society”, purportedly) in order to sow confusion and undermine confidence in the central government’s authority also makes political sense. In other words, if this confession is a fiction, it has been very well researched and made to seem perfectly plausible, at least to the casual reader.

That the ROK intelligence services would somehow be involved should not come as a surprise, nor should a connection to US funding. Stephan Haggard comes to the same conclusion in his 27 July 2012 commentary “Spies and Sabotage” (on the blog site North Korea: Witness to Transformation of the Peterson Institute for International Economics).

But there is another level of authenticity that is only indirectly connected to Jon’s confession. This is the first time that I have ever read in an officially sanctioned DPRK document that its border with China is sufficiently porous to allow unauthorized crossings with relative ease. Even more serious, that there is a network of North Korean brokers who will facilitate crossings for a fee, and that smugglers cross the border with impunity.

Yes, Jon blames his own greed (“being too mad with money”) and assures his listeners that in North Korea the law will prevail (“The security organization of the DPRK has already been tightly monitoring the criminals like me.”) But the document in its entirety could be interpreted as an admission that despite intensive surveillance and draconian punishments, the DPRK regime has failed to stop the flow of its people from North to South and back again.

As much as the “interview” blames the USA and ROK for intended “terror crimes against the supreme dignity of the DPRK,” which is claimed to be “beyond the imagination”, the fact remains that there are sufficient numbers of North Koreans willing to allow themselves to be recruited. (“Though I was detected and arrested, the U.S. and the south Korean intelligence organs would continue producing more Jon Yong Chol and make desperate efforts to put into practice hideous terrorist plots which they failed this time.”)

In view of these admissions, Jon’s closing mantra that “The U.S. and south Korean regime … can never break the close single-minded unity in the DPRK” seems rather unconvincing.

As editor of CanKor.ca, I was eager to pass this document on to our readers. But I had some moral quandaries. How was this confession elicited? What had this poor man suffered before he agreed to don a suit and tie to meet reporters, read a prepared manuscript, and give scripted answers to predetermined questions?

Jon Yong Chol speaking to the press. (Photo by KCNA)

Jon states that he asked for the press conference because “I could not die before indicting the south Korean puppet regime … the den of evil.” There seemed no doubt that his punishment would be death, and indeed there are rumours that he will be (or has already been) publicly executed. At the beginning and before the end, Jon mentions his mother, wife, 2 sons, brothers and sisters, other relatives and friends. Had he agreed to make this confession to spare them punishment for his crimes? Canadian law does not recognize confessions made under torture, and I did not wish to give credence to a document that may have been obtained under cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

But then a CanKor colleague offered another hypothesis: What if Jon is a North Korean agent sent to South Korea to infiltrate anti-DPRK organizations? What if he volunteered for the sabotage assignment in order to return to North Korea to expose the alleged plot? What if Jon Yong Chol is a fictitious name and his confession a fiction studded with real names, known facts and a ready-made indictment of the USA as a terror-sponsoring country? What if – as Haggard and others have mused – the entire affair is meant to justify another nuclear test?

And that is when I remembered Inspector O. For those still unfamiliar with this fictional character, Inspector O is a moody North Korean detective whose criminal investigations have a knack of uncovering more leads than he is authorized to follow. The series of novels is written by James Church, identified on the dust jacket as an unnamed former Western (read: American) intelligence officer, who has obviously had plenty of DPRK experience.

The four Inspector O novels that have thus far been published offer astute insights not only into the character of the North Korean elite, but also the nature of strategic interest in the North Korean drama. These novels are a far cry from popular pulp fiction (such as The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson or the 2002 James Bond movie Die Another Day), where North Koreans serve as convenient ultra-villains.

The complexity of the cases that are tackled by Inspector O make it hard to describe them in short form. The point of each book is never the particular crime he is asked to investigate. In fact, even after you finish reading each book, you are left with further mysteries. Each requires the reader’s own interpretation of events and dialogues. Was Corpse in the Koryo about the elimination of North Korean agents involved in the abduction of Japanese citizens? Was Hidden Moon an introduction to conflicting interests among North Korean bureaucracies? Was Bamboo and Blood about the diplomatic dance that happens during nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the USA?

It has been two years since James Church’s last Inspector O book was published. I intended to review The Man with the Baltic Stare for CanKor at the end of last year. But then Kim Jong Il died, and my attention was focused elsewhere. In fact, however, this is precisely the book that should be read at this time, because it deals with transition in North Korea – not only succession at the top, but the powerful interests that one must assume are already jockeying for position around what at least outsiders consider to be a regime in decline and on a trajectory toward collapse.

Of action there is plenty in the Inspector O novels, and the plots have many unexpected twists. But the thinking reader will find the most compelling “aha” experiences in the dialogue, which seems aimed at revealing current issues and attitudes, thereby coating the fiction with a veneer of reality while inching the plot forward. It is what I love most about the O novels: whereas dialogue is usually a writer’s device to advance the plot, Church seems to use plot as the vehicle to drive his dialogues.

Inspector O has been recalled from retirement, surprised to find that he is to assist Major Kim, a South Korean liaison officer, whose real mission remains a mystery until halfway through the novel. Expressing ROK interests, Kim says, “We need a quiet transition, as seamless and unremarkable as we can make it.” (p. 195) He even reveals South Korea’s intention to keep prison camps intact for the time being.

But the South Koreans are not the only actors in this drama. Zhao, leader of a powerful Chinese crime syndicate tells O, “In case you haven’t figured it out, the Russians have the northeast. The Japs have everything on the east coast below Chongjin. And I have the west coast. … Pang had orders to secure the entire northern half of your country.” (p. 176)

Colonel Pang is a Chinese military officer. He intimates to O that China would not allow changes that would be detrimental to the security needs of China. “If you’d rather work with your brothers in the South, of course I understand. But I can tell you that there is no way that they will reclaim this entire peninsula. And anyway, do you think there is any chance that they will integrate you into their fat and happy world? That would set their economy back decades, depress their living standards, lower wages, siphon off capital, create a burden to support twenty-four million needy people.” (p. 95)

Later in the conversation Pang re-emphasizes: “We won’t let that take place on our border. We will never let events come to that.”

It’s these attitudes of superiority that rankle North Koreans, no matter what their attitude towards their own leaders. Speaking to Zhao, Inspector O sneers, “You and Kim share a dangerous misconception. You think my ragtag nation has already collapsed. You seem to think you can move in at this point to bite chunks off the carcass.” (p. 90)

Referring to South Koreans, another North Korean character tells O, “German sugarplums are dancing in their heads, Inspector. They think we’re going to fall on our knees and beg forgiveness for seventy years of sin, like the East Germans did.”

Rereading this fourth (perhaps last?) Inspector O novel after having read Jon Yong Chol’s “confession”, I wondered whether the title was chosen by the publisher’s marketing people. If so, had they actually read the book? “The man with the Baltic stare” turns out to be a somewhat minor character in a drama otherwise filled with major infiltrators and conspirators. Or did Church wish to underline that even lesser characters will play an important role in the DPRK’s transition?

I don’t know if Jon Yong Chol has a Baltic stare, but he too fulfills a small part in a charade that has plenty of contenders for power on one side and even more “followers” on the other, with plenty of reasons to cooperate with anyone who happens to hold power over them in the present tense.

My own experience with Koreans of both sides leads me to believe that Church has very accurately gauged North Korean attitudes toward South Koreans and Chinese. There is not much love lost on either their southern kin or their closest allies. In my decades-long relationship with North Koreans I have never heard a kind word said privately about the Chinese. The public face of course is another story, because the DPRK needs China, now more than ever.

But though North Koreans continue to speak about the ultimate goal of reunification, there is an inherent awareness that a union managed by South Korea will not usher in the salvation of an oppressed people. Inspector O muses as follows about such a take-over:

“Pyongyang would be razed, dug up, rearranged, subdivided. Streets would be repaved, memorials toppled, factories put under new management and made to produce. Food would come into the markets, goods into stores, rations brought back, prices controlled, intelligence files pored over, people taken away in the night. The rest of the country would barely get a taste of the new money for a long time. When Kim told me the camps would stay, I knew everything I needed to know about what the next ten years would be like.” (p. 155)

Is it possible that Jon Yong Chol had such an insight when he returned to his family in North Korea? In the novel O says the following after Kim intimated that North Koreans have been living a lie:

“You’re going to find this hard to understand, Kim, but it wasn’t a lie. That word can’t cover how tens of millions of people lived their lives for nearly seventy years. We had something to believe in, a way to order existence. Maybe people didn’t have much, most of them had very little, but for practically all of those years they felt they belonged to something. Not so long ago, we used to be friendly to each other; young people stood up and gave their seats to the elderly. There was a simplicity in who we thought we were. We even had hope for the future.”

It is the loss of hope that motivates many defectors and migrants—perhaps also Jon Yong Chol. As Jon very accurately describes in the manuscript, South Koreans are not necessarily very welcoming of burdensome Northerners. Perhaps it was defector’s guilt that drove him into the arms of the saboteurs (assuming his story bears some semblance of reality). Perhaps he realized after his capture the futility of what he had planned to do. Perhaps he no longer cared to play a small part in a larger scheme that held out so little hope.

Perhaps he asked himself the same question O asks Kim: “Even if the past was a lie, what am I supposed to replace it with? Another lie? All that’s necessary is to pull the old one out and put a new one in, like a circuit board? Your lies have more diodes. I suppose they work faster, more color and noise.” (p. 193)

I am aware that I am here in the realm of fiction. If Jon and even part of his story are real, his confession was most likely coerced through unspeakable pressures. But if the contents of the confession comes from the fertile mind of propaganda writers, then it is permissible to analyze the message that has been conveyed, independently of the fate that is in store for any real Jon (and by Jon’s own admission, there are many Jon Yong Chols—real and fictional).

I began to wonder what a conversation between Inspector O and Jon Yong Chol would look like. How would O have interrogated Jon? Could he have elicited a voluntary confession?

One striking difference between the two stories is the identity of the chief villain. I find it curious that whereas in Jon’s account the arch-enemy is clearly the USA, there is not a single mention of Americans in Church’s novel. I found only one comment that could be interpreted as a hint of US intentions. Even here it is disguised as “other people” in the following comment by Chinese Colonel Pang:

“Let me be blunt. We know that some of your southern brothers plan to set up a gangster state on your territory. They need it to make money, to hide money, to move money. Other people think such a state will be useful because it can become an ideal platform for operations of all sorts against my country.” (p. 96)

My guess is that as a former US intelligence agent, Church signed a non-disclosure document similar to (but probably far more stringent than) the one I signed with WFP when I worked in Pyongyang. Even though he is identified only as a “Western” intelligence officer, whatever he might write could be interpreted by the public as an accurate reflection of US policies. Therefore better to leave the USA out entirely.

Jon’s “confession” does substantiate many attitudes expressed also by O, but with an added layer of complexity. Fictitious Jon would surely confront fictitious O about his attitude toward South Korea. The Southerners do not make their own decisions. Plots are cooked up in Washington and implemented by Seoul. The ROK is a sycophant, the USA is the puppet-master.

Still, this leaves a large swath of agreement between the novel and the confession. Jon’s confession in fact gives North Korean credence to what is no longer in doubt. As one CanKor Brain Trust member wrote me, if North and South Korean agencies are not actively trying to infiltrate each other, they are not doing their job. And that includes ROK spies operating in the China border areas, sometimes allied with Christian missionary groups, and a small number of north Korean defector groups.

Already some years ago I interviewed a top-level defector in Seoul who was canvassing foreign embassies (including the Canadian) not merely for financial assistance, but for military trainers. I remembered the conversation when I read this comment made by Pang to O:

“In recent years we’ve been happy to provide shelter for a number of generals from your army who thought it best to live on our side of the river for a while. Now? Well, now they have decided they might want to go home.” (p. 95)

And I wonder whether the files that O read “in the windowless room” containing “page after page about Chinese penetration into the country” might really have referred to a wider selection of culprits: “agents operating under different sorts of cover, defectors being fed back in, agents of influence in the security services.” (p. 164)

For Jon Yong Chol’s confession, click here. But if you haven’t read The Man with the Baltic Stare, be sure to buy the book!

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