Although an enigma to many, there are some with unique insight into life within North Korea’s closed society. One of them is James Church, a former Western intelligence officer who’s written a series of Inspector O mystery novels based on his experience and interactions inside North Korea.
In this episode of the Stratfor Podcast, Church sits down with Chief Security Officer Fred Burton to discuss his unique perspective on North Korea and what his main character, Inspector O, would make of developments unfolding on the Korean peninsula today.
Korea’s Place in History by Rodger Baker
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Fred Burton [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Chief Security Officer Fred Burton, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. To learn more about Stratfor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's Custom Advisory Services, visit us at stratfor.com.
James Church [00:00:30] Some people would like a plot that heads almost straight to the end point. It's like a cruise missile, they want to just get to where the author should get at the end. In my experience, if you're dealing with North Korea, that never happens.
Ben Sheen [00:00:55] For many in the west, North Korea is, quite frankly, an enigma. A closed society with limited access of which they actually know very little beyond the highly politicized rhetoric of what's shaping their understanding for more than half a century. For a peak inside the hermit kingdom, Stratfor's Fred Burton speaks with a former Western Intelligence Officer, who has written a series of mystery novels based on his time in North Korea, using the pseudonym James Church. Church's main character, Inspector O, is a member of the Ministry for the People's Security in Pyongyang, and in addition to a compelling character and a great story, the details surrounding his experiences offers a unique perspective into what life is really like inside North Korea. Thanks for joining us.
Fred Burton [00:01:40] Hi, I'm Fred Burton, here today with James Church who is the author of six books of the Inspector O series. Mr. Church is a former Western Intelligence Officer, and his books are simply fascinating. Those of us here at Stratfor are big fans. Mr. Church, thanks for being with us today.
James Church [00:02:03] I'm glad to be here. I hope James Church can remember enough about Inspector O to make this worthwhile for you. The books were written some time ago.
Fred Burton [00:02:13] Well, they're wonderful reads, and I certainly would encourage all of our listeners to examine Inspector O. First, as an author myself, Mr. Church, I'm always intrigued and fascinated by how folks get in this business. How did you become an author?
James Church [00:02:34] I won't say it was a mistake, I'll say it was just by chance. I had been flying across the Pacific with some friends on our way to North Korea, and we were in the North Korean Consulate waiting for the visas. It's a very quiet place, and I was thinking to myself in a jetlagged state, I wonder if anyone has ever written a mystery story about a North Korean police detective? And it came to me very quickly, no, I don't think anybody has. And so, obviously, I need to fill that gap. And the title came to me almost immediately, A Corpse in the Koryo. I said, "That's it." And from that point on, I decided I had to write this book. It would be fun, it would be a relief from the goofiness that was going on around me, and so I just started taking notes and making observations. And at some point, I had enough notebooks, I thought, well, maybe I should turn this into a book.
Fred Burton [00:03:40] Well, you did, and it's actually quite good. It's amazing to me, especially, right off the bat, your first novel was so good. Let me also ask you, this might be a little bit of a different question, but why the name James Church? I've talked to other authors in the past that have used pen names and so forth. Is there any missing piece of the puzzle, why the name or the pseudonym, pen name James Church?
James Church [00:04:10] Well, first, I had thought to use James Kirk, and then I realized that was already used by another guy, so I thought, well, James Church is good. I needed it to sound British, so people would, at first, think that this was a Brit who was writing. And in fact, a lot of people have thought that, which pleases me. I just needed a pseudonym, because I knew I couldn't write under my true name on this series.
Fred Burton [00:04:37] That's most interesting. Let me ask you a geopolitical question since you've spent so much time in the region. How would Inspector O view the current dialogue on the peninsula now, with the summits and the upcoming one with President Trump? What would Inspector O say about this?
James Church [00:04:59] Yeah, these are the sorts of questions that I flee from the room. Inspector O is a low level police inspector. He watches what's going on around him. His first concern would be that the President of the United States would come to Pyongyang and he would have extra duty.
Fred Burton [00:05:21] Like all good cops.
James Church [00:05:23] That's right. If they come through my sector, "Oh, no, what am I—" He's not really into geopolitics. He understands the outside world somewhat. Obviously, he's been out many times. I don't think he'd be flabbergasted by it. He understands that there are funny turns and twists in how things develop. He saw, for example, in the first book, you might remember that Japan and North Korea, at that point, were moving toward some sort of an accommodation. He's seen old enemies settle their scores before. That's just part of the way history works.
Fred Burton [00:06:07] I heard you say, Mr. Church, in the past, in a previous interview, that in your opinion, the plots of your books unfold how intelligence unfolds. Could you explain that a bit for our listeners?
James Church [00:06:22] Yes. In my experience, when you're doing intelligence work, it's rare that you go right to the right answer. In fact, you never go right to the right answer. You end up going around corners and up hills and down hills, and after an enormous amount of work, you decide it's the wrong path and you have to back up and start all over again. Sometimes you have to make guesses, intelligent guesses but still guesses, on whether you're going to turn left or right at an intersection. If you're lucky, the turn you took is the one that leads you onto a path that helps you get to where you need to get. Sometimes it's the wrong turn, and again, you've got to back up. Some people don't like it. Some people would like a plot that heads almost straight to the end point. It's like a cruise missile. They want to just get to where the author should get at the end. In my experience, if you're dealing with North Korea, that never happens, and if you want to get a flavor for the place, you have to understand that you're going to go up blind alleys, you're going to drop into pits sometimes and have to climb out wondering what happened. Eventually, you'll get in the general vicinity of the answer but it will never be absolutely clear, and you have to satisfy yourself with a significant amount of uncertainty.
Fred Burton [00:07:57] Yeah, that's very well said. I've also seen you say that good intelligence takes imagination, which I think is so true.
James Church [00:08:08] That's a key ingredient in good intelligence, and it's one of the things that too many analysts lack. They either pump up too much of what they think is imagination and end up with total fiction, or all they do is they read the pieces of paper that come across their desk and don't realize that they really represent a three dimensional place with real human beings, and unless you can put yourself in that situation, you won't really understand what those pieces of paper are telling you. Your imagination quota has to be properly apportioned. People think it's really hard to do with North Korea. It isn't. Everything you know, or think you know, about South Korea, you'll know about North Korea, I've always thought.
Fred Burton [00:09:02] Yeah, that's most interesting. What do you make of the North Korean Embassy in Berlin? I understand it's one of their largest that they have. Has that always been an old stomping ground for the likes of Inspector O, for example, or the North Korean security services?
James Church [00:09:26] It was, yes, it was for a long time. It was a good place to get a room, some food, make some contacts. It was close enough to a lot of Western services that you could rub shoulders with people. Obviously, that's all changed now. The Germans are looking more carefully at the North Korean Embassy. It had to cut back on some of its money making operations. It's sort of a shadow of what it once was.
Ben Sheen [00:10:05] We'll get back to our conversation with author James Church in just one moment, but this kind of sober perspective on world affairs is the sort of work that we pride ourselves on at Stratfor Worldview. That's where we publish daily geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that cuts through the headlines of political rhetoric to help members understand what is truly significant versus simply important. For more on this topic, we'll include links to related analysis on North Korea in the show notes. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual, team and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now, back to our conversation with Stratfor's Fred Burton and author James Church.
Fred Burton [00:10:50] How would you, when looking at the service in general, whether it be the MSS or the MPS, how would you rank them? Being in this business as long as folks like you and I have, I know there's some very good services out there. The Iranians, the Russians, obviously. Where would you put the North Korean security services in general on a scale?
James Church [00:11:11] It depends on what particular task you're talking about probably. They've got knuckle-draggers like everybody else does who don't do a particularly fine job, they just have the muscle. But as far as the ability to work externally against their enemies, the North Korean services are very, very good. They're good at putting false information out. They're good at keeping tabs on people. Things are a little bit tougher now than they used to be, but I still think they rank up there. And the reason is, we probably sell them short sometimes. We don't understand how a system like the North Korean system, which is so closed, and the education system would seem to be so limited, can produce such intellectually nimble, very perceptive, innovative people. We've seen it in their foreign ministry, and it's in their intelligence services too. The best in each case is probably as good as anything anywhere in the world.
Fred Burton [00:12:27] Wow, that's very intriguing. I've never heard it put that way before, and that certainly is most enlightening. Do you think, Mr. Church, that they have a global presence, or would they be more Asia focused in just general targeting and collection efforts?
James Church [00:12:47] I don't know for sure. Got to remember that, yes, they have one or two targets in particular that they're watching, right? South Korea and the United States. They've got some interest in Japan, obviously, and it's a base for them. They have to keep tabs on the big powers, neighbors, who can cause them all sorts of unpleasantness. Other than that, I don't really know how much they operate in Africa. Probably a little bit. South America, some. But everybody is really focused on these main targets, and that's why, in some sense, they're so good about it. They're not distracted. They don't have a long list of things to worry about. This is what they focus on. This is what they're good at doing.
Fred Burton [00:13:43] When you think about North Korea, in your years of looking at the country and writing your novels, what's the one takeaway that most people would be surprised in knowing about North Korea?
James Church [00:13:59] I'm sure of this, people are surprised to understand that this is, in many ways, if you get under some of the initial layers, it's a Korean society. People interact like Koreans. It operates like a group of human beings on Earth who were raised in a Korean environment. It looks and feels, in many ways, like Korea, South Korea in the late 1970s, early 1980s. There's some energy there now. There's some growth. People are beginning to feel that the economic system is giving them some space, even though the political system remains a circle, remains quite tight. You got to remember, in South Korea, it was very similar in the 1970s, the early 1980s. The economic space for people to operate grew and grew, and people knew what it was and they operated within it pretty well, but the political space was pretty tough, and if you stepped over the line, you got smashed. They adapted to that, and they lived with it for many, many years until obviously they got sick and tired of it. In the north, I think they're just about in the same place in that regard that the South Koreans were in the late 70s, early 80s.
Fred Burton [00:15:33] Very interesting. Now, your last book was The Gentleman from Japan. Do you have another Inspector O book in the works?
James Church [00:15:42] I don't think so. I never thought I would write another one and then I wrote another one, and then I didn't think—
Fred Burton [00:15:51] I know, I understand.
James Church [00:15:53] Yeah, but I really think that this time I'm not joking. Look, O is getting to be an old man. And it's hard to imagine him coming back. If I got incredibly itchy, I suppose I might be able to do it, but then I'd have to write an eighth book. I don't like odd numbers. That's hard to do, it's hard to write two at once. I don't understand how some of these authors have, you know, 15 books out there and keep writing every year. My hat is off to them. I can't produce like that. Although, I must say, I go to the bookstore sometimes and I see some of these authors have, like, 10, 11, 12 books on the shelf, and I may have one, and I think, to cover myself, I think to myself, "Oh dear, they can't sell any of their books. Look at that. And all of mine are gone. That's great."
Fred Burton [00:16:56] I'm going to have to remember that the next time I walk through a bookstore. That's good, sound advice.
James Church [00:17:00] Well, you should sit next to Dorothy Chandler sometimes, which is where I am on the bookshelf. How many books does she have on the shelf? Loads!
Fred Burton [00:17:12] Right, right.
James Church [00:17:14] My only hope is someone will reach for a Dorothy Chandler book and hit James Church instead and pull it off and say, "Oh, well, this looks interesting."
Fred Burton [00:17:22] Well, I know le Carré brought George Smiley out of retirement in his last book. Just as a fan of yours, you should think about it. I'm sure Inspector O still has a few more things up his sleeve.
James Church [00:17:38] Well, that's nice to know. Thank you. I'll think about it.
Fred Burton [00:17:41] That's all the time we have for this podcast. For those of you interested in more, I would encourage you to certainly take a look at James Church's Inspector O series. It's a wonderful look into the region, which includes North Korea and China. I've greatly enjoyed our time discussing his books today.
James Church [00:18:08] Thank you, Fred. Nice talking to you.
Fred Burton [00:18:10] Nice talking to you, sir.
Ben Sheen [00:18:15] That's it for our conversation with author James Church about his unique perspective on life inside North Korea. We'll include a link to his Inspector O novels, including A Corpse in the Koryo, the first installment of the six book series, in the show notes. It's definitely worth checking out. For more insights into the developments on the Korean Peninsula today and what it means for the rest of the world, be sure to read our latest assessments at Stratfor Worldview. If you're not already a Worldview member, you can sign up for our free newsletter or learn more about individual, team, and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. You can also share your thoughts on this podcast and current developments in North Korea in our member's only forum. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis, and forecasting, and revealing the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter at @Stratfor.