Star of the North – read an extract from the book everyone’s talking about

Published on 10th May Star of the North is an incredibly timely thriller set in North Korea during 2010. I thought the book was fascinating on two counts. Firstly it offers an insight into the lives of those living under the North Korean regime – the ‘cult of personality’, the contrast between the lives of the poor majority and the wealth of the leader, as well as dealing with some of the larger macro political issues that face the countries trying to negotiate with the increase in nuclear threat.

I reviewed the book last month and you can read my full review here.

To whet your appetite the publishers have suppled the extract below where you can read an early encounter between Mrs Moon and the delights of the decadence found outside North Korea – and the risks associated with it.


Baekam County 

Ryanggang Province

North Korea

Mrs Moon was foraging for pine mushrooms when the balloon came down. She watched it glide between the trees and land on a fox-trail without a sound. Its body shimmered and the light shone straight through it, but she knew it wasn’t a spirit. When she got closer she saw that it was a deflating polythene cylinder about two meters in length, carrying a small plastic sack attached by strings. Strange, she thought, kneeling down with difficulty. And yet she had been half expecting something. For the past three nights there had been a comet in the sky to the west, though what it signified, good or ill, she could not decide. 

She listened to make sure she was alone. Nothing. Just the creaking of the forest and a turtle dove flapping suddenly upward. She slit open the plastic sack with her foraging knife, and felt inside. To her astonishment she pulled out two pairs of new warm woolen socks, then a small electric flashlight with a wind-up handle, then a packet of plastic lighters. And something else: a red carton with a picture of a chocolate cookie on the lid. Inside it were twelve cookies, sealed in garish red and white wrappers. She held one to the light and squinted. Choco Pie, she read, moving her lips. Made in South Korea. Mrs Moon turned to peer in the direction the balloon had come from. The wind had carried this thing all the way from the South? A few ri further and it would have landed in China! 

The sky to the east was bleeding red light through the treetops, but she could see no more balloons, just a formation of geese arriving for the winter. Now that was a good omen. The forest whispered and sighed, telling her it was time to leave. She looked at the Choco Pie in her hand. Unable to resist, she opened the wrapper and took a bite. Flavors of chocolate and marshmallow melted on her tongue.

Oh, my dear ancestors.

She clutched it to her chest. This was something valuable. 

Feeling flutters of excitement, she quickly put the items back into the sack and hid the sack in her basket beneath the firewood and fern bracken. Then she hobbled down the forest track, licking her lips. She’d reached the lane that ran along edge of the fields when she heard men shouting. 

Three figures were running across the fields in the direction of the forest—the farm director himself, followed by one of the ox drivers and a soldier with a rifle on his back. 

Goatshit. 

They had seen the balloon go down.

All day she worked the field in silence, uprooting corn stalks with the women of her work unit, moving along the furrows marked by red banners. Enemy balloons were seen in the sky at dawn, one of the women said. The army’s been shooting them down and the radio’s warning everyone not to touch them. 

A biting wind swept down from the mountains. The banners flapped. Mrs Moon’s back ached and her knees were killing her. She kept her basket close and said nothing. At the far edge of the field, she could see only one guard today, bored, smoking. She wondered if the others were searching for balloons.

When the watchtower sounded the siren at six she hurried home. The distant summit of Mount Paektu was turning crimson, its crags etched sharply against the evening sky, but the houses of the village, nestled on a slope of the valley, were in deep shadow. The Party’s face was everywhere—in letters carved on stone plaques; in a mural of colored glass depicting the Dear Leader standing in a field of golden wheat; in the tall obelisk that proclaimed the eternal life of his father, the Great Leader. Coal smoke drifted from the chimneys of the huts, which were neat and white with tiled roofs and small vegetable patches at the rear. It was so quiet she could hear the oxen lowing on the farm. The temperature was dropping fast. Her knees had swollen up painfully.  

She pushed open her door and found Tae-hyon sitting crossed-legged on the floor, smoking a roll-up of black tobacco. Under the exposed bulb his face was as lined and rutted as an exhausted field.

He’d done nothing all day, she could tell. But it was important to her that a husband shouldn’t lose face, so she smiled and said, ‘I’m so happy I married you’.

Tae-hyon looked away. ‘I’m glad one of us is cheerful.’ 

She lowered her basket to the floor and slipped off her rubber boots. The electricity would go off at any minute so she lit a kerosene lantern and placed it on the low table. Her concrete floor was spic and span, the sleeping mats rolled up, her glazed kimchi pots stood in a row next to the iron stove, and the air-brushed faces on the wall, the portraits of the Leaders, Father and Son, were clean and dusted with the special cloth.

Tae-hyon was eyeing the basket. She had not found a single mushroom in the forest, and had nothing but fern bracken and corn stalks to add to the soup, but tonight, at least, he would not be disappointed. She took the plastic sack from her basket and showed it to him. ‘On a balloon,’ she said, dropping her voice. ‘From the village below.’

Tae-hyon’s eyes bulged on hearing the euphemism for the South, and followed her hand as she took out each item and placed it on the floor in front of him. Then she opened the carton of cookies and gave him the uneaten half of her Choco Pie. His mouth moved slowly as he ate, savoring the heavenly flavors, and in a gesture that broke her heart he reached out and held her hand. 

Tomorrow she would scatter an offering of salt to the mountain spirits, she said, and travel into Hyesan to sell the cookies. With the money she would make, she could—

Three hard knocks sounded at the door. 

A cold terror passed between them. She swept the items underneath the low table and opened the door. A woman of about fifty was on the doorstep, holding up an electric lamp. Her head was wrapped in a grimy headscarf and she wore a red armband on the sleeve of her overalls. Her face was as plain as a blister. 

‘An enemy balloon was found in the forest with the package removed,’ she said. ‘The Bowibu are warning us not to touch them. They’re carrying poison chemicals.’


D. B. John has lived in South Korea and is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He co-authored The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee’s New York Times bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea.

 

 

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