By Seija Rankin
May 01, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
Courtesy Crown Publishing Group

They say life imitates art, and that’s the uncanny case with Star of the North, the new thriller from North Korea expert D.B. John. Though the novel might be a bit more colorful than current headlines about the unpredictable nation, its tale of submarine kidnappings covered up for decades by the North Korean government — only to be discovered by the sister of one of the victims, now working for the CIA — feels eerily timely.

Scheduled to hit shelves May 22, Star of the North draws from John’s own experiences in North Korea (which he had the rare opportunity to visit in 2012) and his research into a very real phenomenon: the regime’s systematic abduction of foreign citizens. The book opens with the stealth kidnapping of two children off a South Korean beach and picks up with Jenna, a sister of one of the missing girls and soon-to-be CIA recruit. John also weaves in stories from the ground in North Korea, including those of a high-ranking Pyongyang diplomat and an elderly woman who starts selling goods on the black market.

As the real-life situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to fluctuate, you could sit patiently and wait for diplomacy updates — or you can read this sneak peek of Star of the North. Your choice.

Excerpt from Star of the North, by D.B. John


Baengnyeong Island
South Korea
June 1998

The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.

She was watching the boy make a fire out of driftwood. The tide was rumbling in, bringing towering clouds that were turning an ashy pink. She hadn’t seen a single boat all day and the beach was deserted. They had the world to themselves.

She pointed her camera and waited for him to turn his head. “Jae-­hoon…?” Later, the photograph she took would show a strong-­limbed youth of nineteen with a shy smile. He was dark for a Korean and had a dusting of salt on his shoulders, like a pearl fisher. She handed him the camera and he took one of her. “I wasn’t ready,” she said, laughing. In this photograph she would be in the act of sweeping her long hair from her face. Her eyes were closed, her expression one of pure contentment.

The fire was catching now, wood groaning and splitting. Jae-­hoon placed a battered pan onto the heat, balancing it on three stones, and poured in oil. Then he lay beside her where the sand was soft and warm, just above the high-­tide mark, resting on his elbow and looking at her. Her necklace, later the object of such sorrow and remembrance, caught his eye. It was a thin silver chain with a tiny silver pendant in the shape of a tiger, representing the Korean tiger. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Soo-­min pressed his hand to her breast and they began to kiss, foreheads pressed together, lips and tongues caressing. He smelled of the ocean, and spearmint, and cuttlefish, and Marlboros. His wispy beard scratched her chin. All these details, everything, she was already telling her sister in the airmail letter she was unconsciously composing in her head.

The oil began to spit in the pan. Jae-­hoon fried a cuttlefish and they ate it with chili paste and rice balls, watching the sun sink to the horizon. The clouds had turned to flame and smoke, and the sea was an expanse of purple glass. When they finished eating he took out his guitar and began singing “Rocky Island” in his quiet, clear voice, looking at her with the firelight in his eyes. The song found the rhythm of the surf, and she felt a blissful certainty that she would remember this all her life.

His singing stopped midnote.

He was staring in the direction of the sea, his body as sprung as a cat’s. Then he threw aside the guitar and leapt to his feet.

Soo-­min followed the line of his gaze. The sand was cratered and lunar in the firelight. She could see nothing. Just the breakers thundering in a dim white spume that fanned out flat on the sand.

And then she saw it.

In a small area beyond the breaking surf, about a hundred yards from the shoreline, the sea was beginning to churn and boil, stirring the water to pale foam. A fountain was rising, just visible in the dying light. Then a great jet of spray shot upward with a hiss, like breath from a whale’s blowhole.

She stood up and reached for his hand.

Before their eyes the roiling waters were beginning to part, as if the sea were splitting open, revealing a black, glistening object.

Soo-­min felt her insides coiling. She was not superstitious, but she had a visceral feeling that something malefic was making itself evident. Every instinct, every fiber in her body, was telling her to run.

Suddenly a light blinded them. A beam surrounded by an orange halo was coming from the sea and was focused on them, dazzling them.

Soo-­min turned and pulled Jae-­hoon with her. They stumbled in soft, deep sand, abandoning their possessions. But they had taken no more than a few steps when another sight stopped them dead in their tracks.

Figures in black masks were emerging from the shadows of the dunes and running toward them, holding ropes.

Date: June 22, 1998, Case ref: 734988/220598


REPORT by the Incheon Metropolitan Police at the request of the National Police Agency, Seodaemun-­gu, Seoul

Orders were to determine whether the two missing persons last sighted at 14:30 on June 17 had departed Baengnyeong Island prior to their disappearance. Respectfully submitted by Inspector Ko Eun-­tek:

  1. Security video images procured from the Baengnyeong Island Ferry Terminal establish to a high degree of certainty that no one resembling the missing persons boarded the ferry during any of its departures within the relevant time. Conclusion: the missing persons did not leave the island via the ferry.
  2. The coast guard reported no other shipping in the area at the time of the missing persons’ last sighting. Due to the island’s proximity to North Korea, marine traffic is highly restricted. Conclusion: the missing persons did not depart the island by any other boat.
  3. A local resident discovered yesterday, next to the remains of a campfire on Condol Beach, a guitar, footwear, items of clothing, a camera, and wallets containing cash, return ferry tickets, IDs, and library cards belonging to the missing persons. IDs for both persons match the personal details supplied by Sangmyung University. They belonged to:

Park Jae-­hoon, male, 19, permanent resident of the Doksan District of Seoul, whose mother lives on Baengnyeong Island.

Williams Soo-­min, female, 18, United States citizen, who arrived in the country in March to enroll as an undergraduate.

  1. At 07:00 today the coast guard commenced an air-­sea helicopter search operation over a range of 5 nautical miles. No trace of the missing persons was found. Conclusion: both persons drowned by misadventure while swimming. The sea was calm but currents have been unusually strong, according to the coast guard. The bodies may by now have been carried some considerable distance.

With your agreement, we will now suspend the helicopter search, and humbly recommend that the missing persons’ families be informed.

Reprinted from STAR OF THE NORTH Copyright © 2018 by D.B. John. To be published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on May 22, 2018.