Life and death north and south of the Korean DMZ


The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. Random House, 2012, $26.00 464 pp., (hardcover)
Mr. Kill, by Martin Limon. Soho Crime, New York, 2011 $23.00 375 pp., (hardcover)

A North Korean will instantly recognize that the young man called Pak Jun Do was raised in an orphanage; the name is a generic one given to the country’s orphans, being the same as one of 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.

Probably not coincidentally, and certainly not without good reason, Jun Do’s name also bears close resemblance to “John Doe.” To be an orphan with no family ties is as close to being a non-person as it gets.

More than John Doe, however, the protagonist of this brilliant work of fiction by Adam Johnson turns out to be the North Korean equivalent of Forrest Gump, since lots of things happen to Jun Do over the book’s 464 pages. After military training as a member of the shock brigade whose task in the event of war would be to infiltrate the south via tunnels under the DMZ, he is assigned to a team of agents who cross the sea by submarine to abduct Japanese. Later while imprisoned at a labor camp, Jun Do somehow manages to kill North Korea’s leading Taekwondo champion — quite an accomplishment for an emaciated inmate — after which he takes on the champion’s name and identity, which no one dare question since Dear Leader has decided to go along with the farce. (And challenging Dear Leader’s assertions does not bode well for one’s continued existence.)

With the Taekwondo champion dead, Jun Do winds up as a substitute husband to the nation’s most beloved film heroine, for whom he schemes to help defect abroad with her two children.

The country for whom Jun Do performs these sacrifices is portrayed as one where reality coexists with a parallel universe in which “truth” is a matter of fiat; where workers “retire” to the cozy port city of Wonsan, after which they are never heard from again; where hapless citizens are snatched off the city streets and dragooned into labor battalions to repair roads or harvest crops; and where members of the secret police operate a high-tech torture dungeon in central Pyongyang, in which they compete to extract usable confessions without killing the suspects outright.

For all his noble sentiments, Jun Do remains an expendable puppet, who somehow manages to retrieve a few shreds of human dignity. Like other victims of the totalitarian state, as with Winston Smith, Ivan Denisovitch and other fictitious victims of the totalitarian state, it’s impossible not to empathize with his plight.

Martin Limon’s latest novel takes place in South Korea, shortly after the Aug. 15, 1974, attempt on the life of South Korean President Park Chung Hee during a ceremony commemorating Korea’s liberation at the end of World War II.

George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, investigators attached to the U.S. 8th Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, are on the trail of a brutal rapist, almost certainly an American serviceman, who is somehow able to move freely around the tightly controlled country.

While most of Limon’s earlier novels were set at U.S. military camps around Seoul and the DMZ, this work combines mystery with a travelogue, as the investigators’ job takes them all over the peninsula by train, jeep and boat, from regional cities to islands off the coast.

Finding one twisted criminal from among the tens of thousands of American GIs stationed in country — some at highly secure facilities that don’t lend themselves well to investigation — turns out to be one of the dynamic duo’s most demanding, and dangerous, cases yet.

In previous works, the members of Korea’s national police have been treated as adversaries, but now for the first time Limon has one of the locals — a fluent English speaker and martial arts expert — teaming up with Sueno and Bascom to hunt for a serial rapist and murderer. Mr. Kill (as the Korean surname Gil sounds to the untrained American ear) is Korea’s top homicide cop, and his being assigned to the case indicates the urgency with which the authorities are bent on apprehending the offender, who is starting to add murders to his assaults and rapes.

The hulking Hispanic-American Sueno is the intellectual of the pair, while Bascom is portrayed as a scrappy buffoon with little respect for Army protocol. As a team they are dedicated and fearless, never yielding an inch to track down their man (or to see that justice is done).

Limon, a fluent speaker of Korean whose stories are partially autobiographical, does a spectacular job of authentically recreating the style and substance of army life in Korea in the 1970s. This kind of hard-boiled crime fiction, Army-style, is as good as it gets, and readers who enjoy Limon’s works are also likely to enjoy the novels of Lee Child, featuring the exploits of rough-and-tough former MP major Jack Reacher.