When news broke of a North Korean soldier being shot while defecting across the Joint Security Area in the inter-Korean Demilitarized Zone on Monday, Bradley Martin’s first thought was, “I’m glad this guy lived to tell the tale – unlike my character Joe.”
Joe Hammond, an American reporter touring North Korea, was killed in front of Martin’s eyes, mown down by North Korean gunfire while attempting the same feat: Dashing from the northern side of the JSA, the truce village whose oft-photographed blue huts straddle the intra-Korean border, to the southern side.
Thankfully – and unlike Monday’s incident – Hammond’s fate is a figment of Martin’s imagination. The desperate journalist’s bloody death propels the plot of Martin’s new novel “Nuclear Blues,” set in and around a highly detailed, near-future North Korea.
The ultra-nationalist, nuclear-armed, quasi-socialist, third-generation absolute monarchy is a bizarre and difficult-to-travel-to place – but it is one that Martin knows well.
The Tokyo-based, 75-year-old American is the author of arguably the best portable collection of data available on North Korea: His 2006, 874-page non-fiction book, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.”
That work was informed by Martin’s day job. A finance and general news reporter for a range of media outlets across Asia – including this one – since 1976, he has made seven trips into the isolationist state.
While he is no admirer of North Korea, he is fascinated by it. “My first visit to the country in 1979 was the most amazing experience of my life,” he said in an interview with Asia Times. “The society was so different from anything I was accustomed to that I became hooked on studying the place and attempting to figure it out.”
He had some startling experiences. In 2007, in conversation with a tour guide, he remarked that it was the North which had invaded the South in 1950.
“The head guide became enraged… this was beyond his experience and he simply didn’t believe me,” Martin recalled. “He suggested he and I re-fight the Korean War right then and there, the two of us.”
Later, as their bus rolled toward the JSA, the guide warned the visitors that they were not permitted to stray off the main road – otherwise, “It is permitted to shoot you.”
Such experiences provided Martin with food for thought. “Those incidents revealed that even a sightseeing tour can be a learning experience in a country as stingy about letting information out as North Korea is,” he said.
His adventures in the North came to an abrupt end last year when he was rejected when he applied for a language course in Pyongyang – presumably someone in a visa-issuance position knew of Martin’s writings.
So: Why a novel? The central idea in “Nuclear Blues” is unproven, but plausible.
“I’ve wanted to do a novel ever since it occurred to me, while working as chief Pyongyang-watcher for Bloomberg News, that North Korea’s amazing catalog of provocations could be explained if the regime were engaged in insider trading of credit default swaps — shorts on bonds — with its CDS purchases keyed to the countries whose sovereign and corporate credit were likely to suffer the most from each individual provocation,” he said.
Another spur to write fiction rather than fact was that “Under the Loving Care…,” which hit bookstores in 2006, does not cover current national leader and Kim Jong-un, who assumed power after his father Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011.
“I don’t feel we know enough about Kim Jong-un for me to devote a whole book to him just yet,” Martin said. “So I decided to try to offer ‘Nuclear Blues’ as a fiction sequel, with factual reporting behind most of the background material I present.”
The youthful dictator appears as a significant character in the novel, which also offers one possible resolution to the North Korean crisis.
Martin hopes that his two works will synergize. “It will certainly help reader understanding to have read “Under the Loving Care..,’” he said. “But that’s not essential and I will be happy if a fair number of ‘Nuclear Blues’ readers go back and start at the beginning with ‘Under the Loving Care…’”
Korea watchers will discover from the first pages that the author knows his stuff. Unlike some media covering Monday’s real-life shooting incident, for example, Martin makes clear that only pistols are permitted in the JSA.
“In general I wanted my portrayal to be as accurate as possible into 2017 and then let my imagination carry the tale for the next year or two,” he said. Even so, “Nuclear Blues” is no text book. “I hope it hews closely enough to the basics of the classic thriller as developed in the 20th century by the likes of Graham Greene,” Martin said.
Turning from fiction to current affairs, Martin is unimpressed by US President Donald Trump’s tough-talking, undiplomatic approach to North Korea – an approach some have welcomed.
“It would be good to have Washington thinking about new ways to deal with North Korea,” Martin said. “Unfortunately too much of what we’ve seen is of the schoolyard sort – ‘mine’s bigger than yours.’ I’ll be surprised if, while sticking to his own style of negotiation, Trump is able to resolve our problems with Kim Jong-un.”
He also downplays the war hysteria some Western media indulge in. “I don’t think we’re close to that point so far,” he said. “But we need to make sure we don’t get to that point and that, instead, we start working on a more effective and quieter policy.”
Like many professionals who focus upon North Korea, Martin is irked by the simplistic way the nation is often understood.
He reserves special ire for wannabe do-gooders who believe that an essential human goodness, buried deep within the Kim regime, can be excavated if appropriate policies are employed.
“The policy of the three-generation Kim dynasty is and always has been to win totally, to take over the South completely, even if that means genocide: wiping out the Southern population,” he said.
Asked what the biggest misunderstanding about the Kim regime is, he replied, “Oh, those poor North Koreans, surrounded by enemies. All they need is a peace treaty and the withdrawal of US forces and they will become peaceful with a live-and-let-live policy.”
Any such milk-and-honey endgame is unlikely, if not fantastical: For the foreseeable future, the long-simmering crisis looks set to bubble on. And as Monday’s dramatic defection demonstrates, the events fictionalized in “Nuclear Blues” will never be far from the front pages – something Martin hopes will lure readers to his work, as the novel is self-published.
And even that decision was driven by Pyongyang’s nefarious activities.
“After the devastating revenge taken on Sony after its movie, ‘The Interview’ had insulted North Korea’s ‘highest dignity,'” Martin said, referring to the alleged North Korean cyber attacks on the company in 2014, designed to force the studio to withdraw its comedy about an assassination of Kim Jong-un.
“I was unable to find a literary agent willing to replace my deceased agent, or a traditional publisher willing to take on this project!”