Chickens Defiantly Coming Home to Roost by James Church

[James Church (pen name of a former “Western” intelligence agent) is the author of the popular “Inspector O” series of mystery novels set in North Korea. In this article, written for our partner-site 38North, the long-time friend of CanKor examines words that are often used by the media to describe North Korean behaviours such as the recent satellite launch. His conclusion is that using words such as “defiance” and “provocation” are emotional labels that actually mask real issues and events, thereby leading to mistaken analysis and counter-productive responses. –CanKor]

The Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket launching at DPRK West Sea Satellite launch site in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province. (Video released by KCNA on Dec. 13, 2012)

The Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket taking off from the West Sea Satellite launch site in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province.
(Video released by KCNA on 13 December 2012.)

So far this week, the very, absolutely, most favorite word of headline writers and reporters is “defiance,” as in “North Korean Missile Launch Act of Defiance.” Yes, that’s one way to look at what happened a few hours past dawn on December 12, when the North made up for its “botched” (another favorite word recently) launch attempt last April.

Logically, we suppose an act of defiance needs something to be defiant against—something like established order, a stronger power, or impossible odds. At times, an act of defiance can be deemed heroic. On occasion, it’s considered to be a dangerous challenge. Now and again, it may be seen as merely a pain in the neck. Partially, it’s situational (i.e., what’s going on) and partially positional (i.e., where you sit.)

In this case, the North Koreans are being described as defiant because: 1) they are ignoring the international community (however defined); and 2) they are not acting in compliance with several UN Security Council resolutions and statements. The resolutions have numbers, but in an act of defiance I will not mention them. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Paint Dries By James Church

[From time to time CanKor alerts readers to papers published by our partner-site 38North. The following article is by James Church, the nom de plume of the “Inspector O” novels and a former intelligence officer with plenty of DPRK experience. Please follow our link to the current article on the 38North site. –CanKor]

There is a regular posse of US policymakers and pundits who, when it comes to dealing with North Korea, like to say that Washington should not “buy the same horse twice.” Sooner or later, when something goes wrong—and it usually does—they end up galloping off on their own steeds—the Three Horses of the Apocalypse: Hysteria, Hyperbole, and Hyperventilation. However, in what seems to be a short reprieve, this may be a good moment to take a deep analytical breath before things start going to hell again, which they inevitably will, and take a look around.

As a general rule, following an unremarkable leadership transition is pretty much the same as watching paint dry on a summer afternoon. So far, to the chagrin and surprise of a number of observers who apparently expected a different outcome, the paint on the North Korean succession looks fine. Last week, the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) held another party conference, and with it, the new regime under Kim Jong Un (now KWP First Secretary and First Chairman of the National Defense Commission) has been fleshed out. As of April 15, we have what looks to be the new leadership ranking order. Alas, nothing on the personnel front really catches the eye. The trends set in place (and the decisions foreordained) by Kim Jong Il remain on track. The most one can say is that the KWP leadership structure, after a hiatus of nearly 18 years, appears to be back at full complement. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: “The Orphan Master’s Son”, reviewed by James Church

[James Church is the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of the DPRK, who has authored four “Inspector O” mystery novels set in North Korea. There seems to be much excitement about a new novel by Adam Johnson that purports to be a “window into North Korea”. Adam Johnson is a creative writing teacher at Stanford University known mostly for short stories published by a wide range of magazines from Paris Review to Esquire. He has no North Korean experience whatsoever, except for one visit to Pyongyang as a tourist, but has reportedly spent the past six years working on what would become “The Orphan Master’s Son”. His second novel, this book follows a fictional young man’s journey through fictional tunnels and torture chambers of a fictional North Korea. The main character is the son of a kidnapped singer and an influential master of a work camp for orphans. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do (John Doe?) comes to the attention of superiors in the state and rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper and … well, there’s violence, romance, and eventually heroism, as well as reconfirmation of all the cliches about the horrors of life in the DPRK. –CanKor]


THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON, by Adam Johnson. Random House Publishing Group, 2012. 464 pp. US$30.00 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8129-9279-3 (0-8129-9279-2). This review by James Church was first published by our partner-site 38North under the title “The Orphan Master’s Son”: No Window.


The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)

The range of topics for authors is endless, the techniques of story telling as diverse as the stars in the sky, limited only by what eyes can see—with or without reading glasses—and the public’s brain can comprehend.

All of this applies in spades to Adam Johnson’s new book, The Orphan Master’s Son. Many readers are blown away by its pyrotechnic, shape-shifting, picaresque (choose one or all) approach. It may, indeed, be the best book of the year. The reviews are stellar. All the same, there is a little-noted fly in this ointment, and it is this: For some reason someone decided somewhere along the line to sell the book as a window into North Korea.

That, decidedly, it is not.

If readers like the writing, like the plot twists, like the characters, then good on them. But the book is packaged, touted, and sold as “insight” into North Korea. Someone ought to stand up and gently point out that it isn’t. It might as well be me. I’ve written a few stories set in North Korea, and I’m happy for some company. Let me be clear. What I’m mainly concerned about here is the sales pitch, not the book itself.

We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. That would be the end of the problem, except he doesn’t follow through and simply clam up on the subject in his public remarks. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances? That’s a dilemma, but solving it by letting North Korea be the sizzle for the book isn’t the answer. That may be the publicists’ idea. It may simply have been a decision that came out of thin air. No doubt, it wasn’t such a difficult decision to make. If no one knows anything about North Korea, if everyone is equally ignorant, then there is no danger, and certainly no harm, in taking everyone for a nice ride, is there? Read the rest of this entry »

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