D.B. John Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

D.B. John
Photo: Ollie Grove

D.B. John

An interview with D.B. John

D.B. John explains the real-life stories behind his novel, Star of the North — sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.


The idea for this story came to me during a visit to North Korea in 2012, when my small tour group was suborned into some of the daily rituals of the cult of Kim. On each day of the tour we were asked to pay our respects by lining up and bowing before one of the innumerable statues of Kim Il-sung, the country's founder and self-styled Great Leader. To refuse would have risked getting our two guides, a man and a woman, into trouble. My group formed a real bond with the guides. They were friendly, likeable, and highly educated, yet they would faithfully parrot the regime's propaganda, and solemnly tell us mythic stories from the life of Kim Il-sung, as if reciting parables from the Bible. Surely they didn't believe this stuff. Or did they? A job such as theirs - guiding foreign visitors - is only awarded to the most loyal, the most politically trusted individuals. Most likely, their minds performed the kind of doublethink described by George Orwell in 1984 - to know and not know at the same time - in order to account for the daily discrepancies between the propaganda and the evidence of their own eyes.

So much about North Korea is stranger than fiction. It is a hereditary Marxist monarchy whose people are sealed shut from the outside world. They are told that they live in a land of plenty and freedom, yet children are imprisoned for the thought-crimes of their parents, and the regime uses starvation as a means of political control. Such a state has, over the years, behaved in a way that outsiders might find very difficult to believe, let alone understand, so readers may be interested to know which elements of the novel draw from fact.

The abductions program
In the 1970s and early 1980s the North Korean state actively abducted civilians from beaches in Japan and South Korea. These were not important military or political targets, but random people - teenage couples watching a sunset, a divorced man walking a dog, a local hairdresser, and so on. The motive behind this bizarre criminal enterprise has never been fully explained. Some of the victims were put to work teaching local slang and customs to spies and assassins being trained to infiltrate Japan and South Korea; others had their identities stolen; a tiny number were brainwashed and sent back home as spies, but the majority of them had no obvious use to North Korea. They were housed in isolated compounds for decades and permitted only limited contact with the North Korean population, or they died in mysterious circumstances. For years these abductions were the stuff of urban myth and conspiracy theories in Japan, until 2002, when, during a visit to Pyongyang, Japanese prime minister Junchiro Koizumi was stunned to receive an apology from Kim Jong-il for the abduction of thirteen Japanese citizens. (The true number almost certainly runs to several hundred). It was the only public apology Kim had ever made. He hoped it would trigger the release of billions of yen in war reparations from Japan, but it backfired on him spectacularly when the Japanese public reacted with outrage and demanded the abductees' release.

In addition to the Japanese and South Korean victims, there are believed to be victims from at least twelve countries, including eight from Europe. The most detailed investigation of the abductions is Robert S. Boynton's excellent account, The Invitation-Only Zone (Atlantic Books, 2016).

The Seed-bearing Program
Perhaps because he could never be sure that his kidnap victims were successfully indoctrinated and loyal, Kim Jong-il apparently scrapped the abductions program in favor of the Seed-bearing Program, which came to light only in 2014 with the publication of Jang Jin-sung's extraordinary memoir Dear Leader, (Ebury 2014). In an account reminiscent of an episode of the 'Twilight Zone', Jang describes how North Korea sent attractive female agents abroad to become pregnant by men of other races - men with white, brown, or black skin. At the same time women of other races were kidnapped and brought to Pyongyang to have sex with male North Korean agents. Their half-Korean children were born in Pyongyang and looked foreign. The aim was to create loyal spies who were North Korean born and bred and thoroughly indoctrinated. Today these children live in strict segregation from the rest of the population. Their needs are attended to by Section 915 of the Organization and Guidance Department, the shadowy body through which the ruling Kim exercises power.

Gangster diplomats and Bureau 39
In the 1970s the North Korean government found it increasingly difficult to fund its embassies abroad, and ordered them to become self-financing. Using diplomatic pouches, which are exempt from customs searches, North Korean diplomats began smuggling gold, illegal ivory, counterfeit dollars and pharmaceuticals, and hard drugs manufactured to a high purity in North Korea for sale to local crime organizations. Border guards and sniffer dogs have discovered these diplomats' contraband many times. Some embassies have also been involved in the abductions of local citizens, others for channeling wealth into Bureau 39, the secretive slush fund for maintaining the Kims' luxurious lifestyle and for buying their cronies' loyalty. For the best account of North Korea's illicit economy, see North Korea Confidential by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson (Tuttle Publishing, 2015). This book also offers the most convincing explanation for why Kim Jong-un had his uncle Jang Song-taek, the brains behind Bureau 39, executed in 2013.

North Korea has no freedom of religion, except, of course, for Kim worship. A few defectors have testified to the existence of secret Christian 'house churches' in the cities. These have tiny congregations that change their meeting places frequently for fear of discovery, rather like the early Christian church. They read from verses of the Bible copied by hand onto scraps of paper. Anyone caught in possession of an actual Bible faces execution or a life in the gulag. Two large churches in Pyongyang, replete with hymn-singing congregations, are sometimes shown to foreign visitors. Jang Jin-sung's memoir Dear Leader confirmed what many had suspected about these churches: that they are a cynical sham designed to deceive foreigners and to obtain international aid. They are run by the United Front Department of the Workers' Party and the congregation members are UFD operatives.

The gulag
Generally, there are two type of labor camp in North Korea. In the first category are camps for those sentenced to 'revolutionary re-education through labor', from which, if they survive their punishment, prisoners may be released back into society and then monitored closely for the rest of their lives. The second category, operated by the Ministry of State Security, the Bowibu, are the extremely harsh 'total control zone' camps for political prisoners. Inmates there have no hope of release and are worked to death as slaves in farms, factories, and mines.

In both types of camp conditions are life-threatening and unsanitary. Torture, beatings, rape, infanticide, and public and secret executions are common, as is extremely dangerous work without safety equipment or protection. Most prisoners, however, die of illness and malnutrition, as food portions are tiny and many resort to eating rodents, snakes, and insects to survive. Daily life in the camps is attested to in a number of astonishing defector memoirs, most memorably The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol Hwan (Basic Books, 2001) and The Eyes of Tailless Animals by Soon Ok Lee (Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1999), both of whom escaped North Korea after their eventual release. Soon Ok Lee's account is one of the few to bear witness to the brutal treatment of Christians inside the camps. The descriptions of Cho's torture is based on Soon Ok Lee's account of the torture she endured in prison.

Some analysts have wondered about the purpose of the labor camps. Starving, emaciated prisoners are only fractionally as productive as well-fed healthy workers. The camps make no economic sense in terms of their contribution to the wealth of the country. Sadly their main purpose is to serve as instruments of control. Just as a functioning democracy must have free elections, so a totalitarian dictatorship must have concentration camps if it is to maintain control through terror.

Guilt by association
Often, three generations of a convicted prisoner's family, including children and the elderly, are made to endure the punishment alongside the prisoner. A family will share the same hut inside the camp. Children born in the camps - most famously Shin Dong Hyuk, whose story is told in Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Viking 2012) - bear the guilt of their parents and can expect to grow up, work, and die inside the camps.

North Koreans also carry the perceived guilt of their ancestors under the songbun system. This caste system, unique to North Korea, divides the population into three classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile, depending on what the father's ancestors were doing just before, during, and after the founding of the state in 1948. If your ancestors included workers and peasants, and fought on the right side during the Korean War, your family is classed as loyal. If, however, your ancestors included landowners, merchants, Christians, prostitutes, anyone who collaborated with the Japanese during the period of colonial rule, or anyone who fled to the South during the Korean War, then your family will be classed as hostile. The hostile class - about 40 per cent of the population - are assigned to farms, mines, and menial labor. Only the loyal class gets to live in Pyongyang, has the opportunity to join the Workers' Party, and the freedom to choose a career.

In the novel, the character of Colonel Cho is based loosely on Kim Yong, who, as a child, had been adopted from an orphanage by a loyal family in Pyongyang. When his birth records were checked prior to an important promotion, however, he learned that he was the son of an executed traitor who'd spied for the Americans during the Korean War - the worst imaginable class background. The nightmare that then begins for Cho really did happen to Kim Yong. He was deported to a total control zone, Camp 14, where he was put to work in the mines, and later to the less harsh Camp 18, where he joined his family, after his former colleagues appealed on his behalf. His riveting escape, described in Long Road Home (Columbia University Press, 2009) is still one of the best of the defector memoirs.

Camp 22 and human experimentation
Also known as Hoeryong Concentration Camp, Camp 22 is a vast, isolated, total control zone in the northeast of the country where the brutality of the conditions defies imagination. There is no defector testimony, as far as I know, from Camp 22. The description of the camp comes from satellite monitoring and the evidence of former guards.

Kwon Hyok, a former head of security at Camp 22 who defected to South Korea, and Ahn Myung Chul, a former guard, have described laboratories containing sealed chambers for chemical weapons experiments on human prisoners, with gas pumped through a tube into the chamber and scientists observing through glass windows. Three to four prisoners would be murdered at a time, often a family unit. At Kaechon Concentration Camp, Soon Lee Ok described an experiment in which fifty healthy women were given poisoned cabbage leaves. All fifty died within twenty minutes of vomiting and internal bleeding. She gave testimony to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights at New York in 2013.

The Dear Leader's train
Kim Jong-il was afraid of flying - possibly because he'd ordered the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, killing 115 people, in a bid to deter visitors to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. After that, there was always the possibility of a reprisal against him. Most of his journeys were undertaken in his private armored train, which had 17 compartments, including luxury living quarters and a satellite communications center. He preferred to travel at night, when scrolling American spy satellites couldn't track him. In 2001, he even made the 4,500-mile journey from Pyongyang to St Petersburg (which he insisted on calling Leningrad) by train. It took twenty-one days. Traveling with a large entourage, Kim the gourmet sampled the local cuisines and had fresh fish and game flown out to him en route, and even wines and cheeses from France. He was in such high spirits that he regaled his courtiers and Russian guests by singing patriotic Soviet songs. It was perhaps fitting, then, that he died on this train on December 17, 2011, according the official North Korean state media, suffering a myocardial infarction (heart attack) while traveling on one of his endless field guidance tours.

Rockets and missiles
Eagle-eyed readers will spot that I've taken liberties with the dates for North Korea's satellite rocket launches. To date, it has launched five, in 1998, 2009, two in 2012, and in 2016. Only two of these apparently succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit. The rocket program's real purpose, however, is almost certainly to test the technology needed for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. Such missiles have to leave the atmosphere and re-enter without their payload burning up. After numerous test launches in summer 2017, it appears that North Korea has now mastered, or is very close to mastering, this technology.

Further reading
I would not have been able to write this story without reading the histories, journalism, and memoirs of a number of authors. I've enjoyed the research as much as the writing, and many of the works in which I've found the details for the story have been of an astounding standard. Some I've mentioned above. What follows is a further small selection. I should say that any liberties taken with truth, or any historical inaccuracies in the novel are mine alone.

Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy (Granta 20101) is a brilliantly readable account of how ordinary people found ways to survive the famine of the 1990s, some of them unlearning decades of ideology in order to become market traders. The Real North Korea (OUP 2013) and North of the DMZ (McFarland 2007) by Andrei Lankov, whose wry humor was much appreciated, are both superb general introductions to North Korea, as is The Impossible State by Victor Cha (Bodley Head, 2012), a veteran foreign policy advisor to President George W. Bush. I'm indebted to Dr Cha for the scenes in which the North Korean diplomats are treated to a night out at the 21 Club in Manhattan, and the American mission arrives in Pyongyang.

The Hidden People of North Korea by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009) has some fascinating descriptions of the imperial lifestyle of Kim Jong-il. At the opposite end of the social scale, Under the Same Sky, has first-hand information about lives of the kotchebi , the vagrant street kids of North Korea, written by a defector who used to be one of them, Joseph Kim.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for D.B. John but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Barbara Demick

    Barbara Demick

    Barbara Demick has been interviewing North Koreans about their lives since 2001, when she moved to Seoul for the Los Angeles Times. Her reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club award for human rights reporting, ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Star of the North

    Nothing to Envy
    by Barbara Demick

  • Paul Fischer

    Paul Fischer

    Paul Fischer is an author and film producer based in the United Kingdom. His first book, A Kim Jong-Il Production has been translated to date into twelve languages. It was nominated for the Crime Writers' Association's ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Star of the North

    A Kim Jong-Il Production
    by Paul Fischer

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