Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: North Korea (page 1 of 5)

Pachinko, A Literary Triumph!

51mulp7HJ+LIn the spirit of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, Pachinko is a beautifully written story about the sweeping four-generation history and saga of a Korean family in Japan. In a story filled with forbidden love, triumph and failure, and the need to belong, author Min Jin Lee sheds light on a subject not normally explored by novelists—the plight of Korean immigrants in Japan. In rich, evocative language, Lee takes the reader on an emotional, amazing journey through the Japanese occupation of Korea, post World War II, the Korean War, and modern Korean society.

At the center of this moving story is the heroine Sunja, the family matriarch who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of her family. She is the embodiment of the struggles that many Koreans faced during this period who found themselves exiled from their homeland and the yearning to return to it one day. The depth and empathy of her story, as well as other members of her family, is just as haunting as it is moving.

Pachinko is a literary triumph; a readable, passionate story that will resonate with readers long after they have finished it

Winds of Change

With talk of summits on the Korean peninsula these days, one might be inclined to believe that peace could very well be at hand, or at the very least, some serious talk about reducing tensions in northeast Asia.

Kim Jong-un’s recent trip to China was definitely an unprecedented move, which could have far-reaching repercussions. My guess is that Kim needed to bring China onboard and seek some advice about what to do, and perhaps what not to do with the upcoming summit with Moon Jae-in and later with Donald Trump. Kim is proving to be a shrewd player on the international stage.

Nuclear Blues

Martin 001Bradley Martin, the man who wrote the book on North Korea with his Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leaderwas in Seoul recently at What the Book? Bookstore talking about his new book, Nuclear Blues.

His new book is a thriller set in North Korea that has everything from evangelists running around, nuclear missiles, a blues musician, Heck Davis, investigating the death of his best friend, to a surprise appearance by Kim Jong-un. It’s a non-stop geopolitical thriller that’s a lot of fun to read. While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, “you know, this could happen. It certainly is plausible.”

With North Korea and Kim Jong-un in the news so much these days, this is a timely novel from Martin. I doubt Kim Jong-un will have this book on his nightstand for some late night reading…but who knows?

All Along the DMZ — Part IV

This is Part IV of a five-part series on the Korean DMZ inspired by Barry Lancet’s geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table and my articles and essays about the DMZ and JSA.
This originally appeared in Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Panmunjom031“How would you like to fly up to the JSA with CNN?”

It was in May 2001, when one of the public affairs officers for the 8th Army asked me if I would like to accompany CNN to Camp Casey.

“Excuse me?”

“We’ve invited a lot of media to cover the beret changing ceremony,” he continued. “You’ll be flying up there with Sohn Jie-ae, CNN’s Seoul Bureau Chief and a photographer from Reuters. Afterward, you’ll fly to the JSA.”

On June 14, 2001, U.S. soldiers serving in South Korea would be the first ones to wear the new black berets that the Army adopted. In commemoration of this event, and no less in part of the significance of the U.S. military still having a strong presence in Korea, USFK arranged for a lot of media coverage of this event for major U.S. networks and other news agencies.

Another helicopter ride, I thought. If you are going to the place President Bill Clinton called, “the scariest place in the world” flying into the JSA in a Blackhawk was a grim reminder of the tensions that have existed on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. And if you wanted to talk about traveling in style, not to mention excitement, it would be another ride of a lifetime.

Crew_Chief__Pave_Hawk_2001We were supposed to fly from Seoul to Camp Casey, home to the U.S. Second Infantry Division, where we would cover the “Beret Ceremony” before proceeding to Camp Bonifas. However, inclement weather prevented us from flying, so we had to take a van to Casey, which is located in Tongduchon, about two hours north of Seoul.

So, there we all were—Sohn Ji-ae and her crew of three, a photographer from Reuters, a public affairs official, and myself—squeezed into the van. It was still dark when we left Yongsan, the sprawling military base in Seoul, and there wasn’t too much chitchat on the way up. When the weather improved later that morning after the ceremony we were allowed to fly into Bonifas.

Upon arriving at Camp Bonifas, we were met by Lt. Colonel William Miller, the JSA Commander who took us on a private tour. Many people are not aware that the Panmunjom—at least what is open for tours—is not the Panmunjom where the armistice halting the Korean War was signed in July 1953. That area is north of the JSA in North Korea. However, the area itself including the JSA is referred to as Panmunjom.

First, there was a stop at OP (Outpost) Ouellette, which is only open to dignitaries like presidents and other VIPs. (If President Trump had not canceled his trip to the DMZ to meet South Korean President Moon, this was where they most likely would have gone). Named after Private First Class Joseph R. Ouellette, who was killed during the Korean War at the Busan Perimeter in September 1950 (and awarded the Medal of Honor), it was the northernmost U.S. military outpost on the Korean peninsula (since then, most of the outpost duties have been turned over to South Korea). It was a warm, sunny day—nice weather for Korea at this time of the year before the arrival of changma, or the rainy season. However, don’t let the weather fool you; this is the DMZ and every day is eerie and foreboding.

In the distance, distinguishable in the haze and glare was a North Korean outpost. No sooner had we arrived and toured the facilities, two NPA soldiers with binoculars appeared and kept us in their sights as we were briefed on OP Ouellette’s purpose and Ms. Sohn interviewed some soldiers.

74046421RTHAJj_fsNext, it was down to the heart of the JSA and Conference Row—more like the centerpiece of the JSA and one of the highlights of any civilian tour. Here you can actually get within spitting distance of the “enemy” as it were when you enter one of the blue MAC buildings where meetings between the two sides take place from time to time. Interesting to note, prior to the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders, US, South Korean, and North Korean soldiers could “wander” anywhere in the JSA. The concrete marker between the buildings? That’s the line you cannot cross.

Finally, we stopped at the Bridge of No Return. Enough said. There, Sohn Jie-ae conducted an interview with two soldiers.

I wasn’t going to be writing a story that day. Having jumped at the chance for a helicopter ride into the JSA, another reporter would be covering the beret changing main event, which took place on Knight Field located inside Yongsan. I was just along for the ride—and what a ride it was. After the interviews, it was back on the Blackhawk for the flight back to Seoul. I’ll never forget flying out of Bonifas and over the Imjin River. That was exciting and something that I will never forget.

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All Along the DMZ — Part I

I just finished Barry Lancet’s heart-pounding geopolitical thriller, The Spy Across the Table, and I really enjoyed the scenes which took place in and around the DMZ on the Korean peninsula. Having been there several times, both as a tourist and a feature writer for The Korea Times, I appreciate those authors writing about events on the Korean peninsula who try to incorporate the DMZ into their stories. It is an amazing, surreal place, “freedom’s final frontier” as one military PSA on USFK used to refer to it back in the 1990s. Inspired by Lancet’s book, and President Trump’s last minute unscheduled trip to the DMZ, which was scrubbed due to fog, it prompted me to share my experiences and accounts of the times I visited the DMZ.

Panmunjom006My first trip to Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area (JSA) was on New Year’s Eve, 1996 as part of a USO tour. Interestingly, the day before I went up there, the bodies of the North Korean commandos who were killed during the submarine incursion in September of that year were repatriated to the North.

What was interesting about going on a tour was that after we listened to a presentation about the history of Panmunjom and the JSA, we had to sign a waiver which said that USFK (United States Forces Korea) was not responsible for our deaths should anything happen while we there. It wasn’t to heighten the tension either. In 1984, an East German tourist on a tour on the northern side of the JSA defected which resulted in a firefight in the JSA. One South Korean soldier was killed. Panmunjom007

Once you leave the confines of Camp Bonifas and head north to the JSA, that’s when things get intense with the concertina wire, minefields, and anti-tank barriers. The day I went to the DMZ it was cold and dreary which added a bit of atmosphere to the tour. Here you can see the Bridge of No Return where POWs were repatriated at the end of the Korean War. It was also across this same bridge, twenty-eight years earlier, where the crew of the USS Pueblo was repatriated in December 1968. It was also where the 1976 Panmunjom ax murder incident occurred where two US officers, Capt. Arthur Bonifas and Lt. Mark Barrett were killed by North Korean soldiers. I was in technical training school at Lowry AFB, Colorado when this happened. Years later, when I read about the murders and the military operation to chop down the poplar tree which had blocked the blue guardhouse as well as interviewing former JSA soldiers who were stationed there at the time for an article in the Korea Times, would I realize how close we were to another war breaking out on the peninsula.

Panmunjom004One of the highlights of the tour is the chance to walk into one of the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) buildings on conference row where military and armistice related talks between both sides have taken place over the years. It’s also where you can “cross” into North Korea so you can go back home and tell everyone that you have been to North Korea. If you’re lucky while you are there, you might get to see an NPA (North Korean People’s Army) soldier peering in to see who is on tour that day.

Although the tour might seem straight out of some dystopian Disneyland with everyone going home at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Bill Clinton called this place the “scariest place on earth.” It was along the DMZ in the mid-1960s where North Korea provoked numerous border incidents which have sometimes been referred to as the second Korean War (in response to the South’s dispatch of two divisions to Vietnam as well as driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea). And from those events, it would morph into other incidents which have reminded everyone of the fragile peace which has existed on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

It remains a scary place to this day. Freedom’s Final Frontier.Panmunjom002

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

Book Trailer for Bureau 39

bureau39_ebook_front 2If you’re going to promote your book these days, you need to spend a lot of time on social media. Just posting a link to your book on Amazon or wherever else that it is available is just not going to work.

You need a video.

Specifically, you need a book trailer.

Of course, you still have to publish it somewhere and of course you still have to get people to watch it…who you hope will want to buy your book, but it’s just one of the things that indie authors have to do if they want to reach a wider market.

 

What do you think? Makes you want to go out and buy the book now, doesn’t it?

Proof Day

Proof 1You know the adage, “the proof is in the pudding?” Well, that’s how I felt when I received my proof of Bureau 39 in the mail today. It’s a big day when you see the physical copy of your book for the first time.

It’s a thrill that never gets old.

Even though I had already seen the eBook version, nothing beats holding your book in your hands; the one you worked on for so long; the one written with lots of sweat and torment when certain scenes didn’t always turn out the way you wanted.

This time, I went for a matte finish instead of a glossy one. Although I’m not too happy that the print is not too sharp, I do like how the cover feels.

Like I said, “the proof is in the pudding.”

What is Bureau 39?

DSCF2413What exactly is the infamous Bureau 39?

This is what Wikipedia says:

“Room 39 (officially Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party, also referred to as Bureau 39, Division 39, or Office 39) is a secretive North Korean party organization that seeks ways to maintain the foreign currency slush fund for the country’s leaders, initially Kim Il-sung, then, in progression, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.

The organization is estimated to bring in between $500 million and $1 billion per year or more and may be involved in illegal activities, such as counterfeiting $100 bills (see Superdollar), producing controlled substances (including the synthesis of methamphetamine and the conversion of morphine-containing opium into pure opiates like heroin), and international insurance fraud.

Although the seclusion of the North Korean state makes it difficult to evaluate this kind of information, many claim that Room 39 is critical to Kim Jong-un’s continued power, enabling him to buy political support and help fund North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Room 39 is believed to be located inside a ruling Workers’ Party building in Pyongyang, not far from one of the North Korean leader’s residences.”

And, in the immortal words of that endearing radio personality, Paul Harvey, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

Of course, the real story is here.

 

CIA Creates Mission Center on North Korean Threat

5980819f593a46c491b6c1887823263a_18I couldn’t ask for better publicity for my new novel, Bureau 39.

Every time there’s a story about North Korea these days means more exposure for my novel. In this case, a mission center in Seoul to assess the North Korean threat.

“Creating the Korea Mission Center allows us to more purposefully integrate and direct CIA efforts against the serious threats to the United States and its allies emanating from North Korea,” CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In Bureau 39, Frank Mitchum a CIA operative flies to Seoul to find out what he can about a dead North Korean defector who might have had information about a drug distribution system that the North might have been using to smuggle missile components for their WMDs.

Keep the publicity coming. Every little bit helps!

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