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Category Archive for 'Korea'

Author “James Church,” a former western intelligence officer with “decades of experience” in Asia, including, presumably, North Korea, provides a stunning and profoundly interesting portrait of “real life” in this secretive and sometimes paranoid country. Inspector O, the main character in Church’s novel, works for the North Korean Ministry of People’s Security, but even at the level of inspector, he has no idea why he is assigned many of his tasks, nor does he know why he is often sent from the capital, Pyongyang, to outposts like Manpo and Kanggye on the Chinese border. All he knows is that his camera never has batteries that work, that finding a cup of tea is sometimes impossible, and that he does not rate a thermos. He expects to be tailed and spied upon, and he is accustomed to having his living quarters searched. He can trust no one, and he must constantly watch his own back to ensure that he does not accidentally discover information about crimes that he does not even know exist.

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Author Ha Jin, who was born in the People’s Republic and lived there until he left to attend college in the United States in 1985, offers a unique perspective on Chinese culture, different from that which appears in most “Chinese” novels written for an American audience. Setting this novel primarily in a POW camp in South Korea, where Chinese and North Korean troops, captured by US and South Korean soldiers, have been separately interned during the 1950s war, Ha Jin focuses on the different attitudes each group has toward home, country, and each other. Through Yu Yuan, a young soldier from the Chinese Communist army, Ha Jin shows how differently Yuan evaluates his life and his obligations but how similarly he holds to ideals of friendship, justice, honor, and love.

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Jerome Battle, who describes himself as an “average American guido,” has managed to live most of his sixty years “above it all,” never quite engaging with those around him or becoming truly intimate. On weekends he is aloft in his small plane, his “private box seat in the world and completely outside of it, too,” flying alone around Long Island. Unfortunately, Jerry also lives his personal life the way he flies his plane, as if he’s seeing it from a great distance. Slowly, inexorably, the author develops the family’s crises until they finally force themselves onto Jerry’s personal radar screen. A couple of emergencies, he finally realizes, “are new instructions from above (or below or beyond), telling me in no uncertain terms that I cannot stay at altitude much longer, even though I have fuel to burn, that I cannot keep marking this middle distance.”

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