The geopolitical tension between America and North Korea offers fertile creative ground for spy fiction. Author John Altman uses this perfectly to craft his fast-paced action thriller The Korean Woman.
The novel opens with Song Sun Young – the titular Korean woman – leaving North Korea and escaping into China across the Tumen River. When she’s startled by a random man, she quickly kills him, leaving behind no witnesses. It’s clear that Song isn’t some wayward refugee, but something far more sinister.
Seven years later, Dalia Artzi is teaching a history class at Princeton, New Jersey. Dalia is an interesting if unusual thriller protagonist. An elderly Israeli woman, she’s an expert in wargaming potential conflicts. She’s also a “retired” agent for the Israeli government with close ties to the CIA. When she’s approached by an old colleague in the Company, Dalia is roped into a new mission.
Turns out, Song has been living in New York City under a fake name and started a family. As a housewife in the Upper East Side with two kids and a wealthy husband, she’s living the American Dream, but out of nowhere, the CIA has detected she’s been contacted and activated by North Korean Intelligence.
As mentioned, Song isn’t some refugee but rather a spy for the North Korean regime. She and her brother were sent to the infamous Yodok camp as children where they showed a tenacious skill at escape. Rather than executing them, the regime decided to turn them into spies, sending Song out as a sleeper agent to be used in the future. Her brother was kept behind in North Korea as collateral.
The CIA has long since been aware of Song’s double life and kept her under surveillance, rather than outright arresting her. But out of nowhere, she receives a text order to procure a security card from the NYMEX corporation. Song goes into action, seducing a NYMEX worker, making a copy of his security card, and sneaking back into her apartment with enough time to make breakfast for the kids. Song’s double life is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the novel, and I’d like to have seen more with it. Her motives are muddled, but that only makes her more realistic. Of course, she loves her family, even if it’s only a cover, but she’s also loyal to her brother, held hostage in North Korea. She alternates between returning to her homeland and turning herself over to the Americans, and her turmoil is palpable.
Enter the third main character, Benjamin Bach, an analyst for the CIA. Like Song, his past is littered with tragedy, having lost his father in 9/11 and sucking in a dangerous amount of dust left behind in the collapsed World Trade Center. When cancer finally manifests itself, Bach sets his plan into motion. His expertise regarding North Korea has affirmed the idea that the regime is a danger to the world and should be eliminated in any way possible.
Back to Song, she heads to an airport ready to drop off the copied NYMEX card with Dalia and the CIA monitoring every move. When things go awry, Song makes an escape and heads out of New York City and upstate, with the entire American government giving chase.
Altman’s prose is crisp and taut, the perfect writing for a high-concept thriller. I was also surprised by how much I liked Song and how complex she was, filling the dual role of protagonist and antagonist. While she loves her family, she is able to cut them off once her cover’s blown, a common trait among spies. Now Song is no longer fighting for North Korea, her family, or even her brother, she’s just trying to stay alive and – hopefully – go underground and live out a quiet life in obscurity. However, Dalia is closing in and Benjamin Bach is setting his own plans into motion that may end in a nuclear holocaust.
The novel is a fairly short read and not overly complicated, but I feel that’s to its advantage. If you like your thrillers fast-paced and laden with tension, The Korean Woman is for you.
John Altman Interview
1) What inspired you to write The Korean Woman?
My book before this, FALSE FLAG, introduced a protagonist I wanted to revisit – Dalia Artzi, the Israeli military historian who “studies war only to prevent war”. When casting around for a political hotspot in which to set the sequel, North Korea jumped out.
2) What research did you do about North Korea while writing the novel?
Lots of research was done – lots of reading (both fiction and non-) about North Korean history and culture and, in particular, prison camps; also about the security and lack thereof of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a key plot point in the book. And I was fortunate to find knowledgeable, experienced people who shared their insight with me – an American who lives in South Korea helped me parse the Korean peninsula in a way I could understand, and another who works as a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy, who educated me about missile interception (another plot point), and another who contributed the idea of the quantum computer (yet another plot point) and then patiently walked me through the finer points.
3) Was there anything you cut out of early drafts of the novel?
I cut out a lot more than got published. I just vomit out prose. The problem is going back and winnowing/shaping into something good.
4) Song is the most complicated character in the book. She seems to have truly loved her kids and her husband, but also her brother, being held hostage by the North Korean regime. She alternated between hating America for its luxuries and loving it for those very things. Where do you think her true loyalties lay?
That’s a good question. I don’t think her loyalties lay in one place. She is ambivalent.
5) Who is your favorite character and why?
I have great fondness for both Song and Dalia – my anti-hero and hero. There is one passage in the novel that points out all the similarities between them, which I liked.
6) There are lots of technical details throughout The Korean Woman. Did you have to do much research into these details while writing the novel?
Yes, see number 2. I’m no good at tech stuff but I was really lucky to have these smart, generous (and patient!) people walking me through it. It didn’t seem to me that a geopolitical novel about America and North Korea at this time in history could capture the real gestalt without exploring the issue of nuclear war.
7) The protagonist – Dalia Artzi – is not a “typical” thriller hero. Was there any reason why you made her an old woman?
This was my second book with Dalia. I guess I made her an older woman specifically because it was unusual.
8) Was it difficult to get The Korean Woman published?
I was lucky enough to have a contract for this book before I started writing it (not always the case) so publishing was easy. Getting it promoted and selling some copies, though, was hard.
9) What do you think the future holds for American-North Korean relations?
If you put a gun to my head, I’d guess the future will bring more normalization. But there are no guarantees.
10) What are you working on currently?
I’m working on another spy thriller.
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