Larry Bond’s 1987 novel Red Phoenix detailed a second Korean War, day by day, hour by hour. Red Phoenix Burning by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson is a follow-up, a narrative of how North Korea collapses into a full-blown civil war.
I read Red Phoenix (not to be confused with Andrew Warren’s Red Phoenix) years ago and really enjoyed it. It falls into the technothriller genre alongside notable authors like Tom Clancy, but these two novels had sweeping narratives and multiple POV that allowed the reader to see every side of the conflicts.
At the end of Red Phoenix, the North Korean Army was pushed back across the 38th parallel, and the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army had invaded to maintain order. Kim Jong-il was assassinated by the Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese established a sort of vassal state. Red Phoenix Burning takes place in that same continuity, which is a little confusing, but actually lines up with what happened in the real world pretty well.
Kim Jong-un still rules North Korea, but in the book’s continuity, the Chinese installed him as regent when he was just a boy. This wasn’t mentioned at all in Red Phoenix, namely because Kim Jong-un was not known to the outside world until the late 2000s. There are references to the “Second Korean War” but it’s not necessary to have read the first book before reading this one.
The gist of the plot is that the scheming factions within North Korea reach a breaking point. General Tae Seok-won is a North Korean Army officer who gets drawn into a conspiracy to usurp the Kim regime through a coup. As predicted, the coup goes awry and North Korea collapses into an all-out civil war, among different factions.
It isn’t long before foreign powers get involved, motivated by securing North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. First, it’s just the South Koreans, then the Americans, and finally the Chinese, who come in from the north, reminiscent of 1950. The different North Korean factions keep fighting each other, in addition to battling the invading South Korean/Americans. It culminates at Pyongyang, with General Tae commanding a good chunk of the remaining North Korean Army, dug in and determined to make the invaders pay. However, Tae has an idea on how to not only save himself, but his entire country, which doesn’t involve a pitched battle where Pyongyang is reduced to rubble.
As mentioned, there are many different points of POV in addition General Tae. These include Colonel Kevin Little, a US Army officer stationed in South Korea. He was something of the protagonist in the last book, but here that role is mostly filled by Colonel Rhee Han-gil. Commander of the elite “Ghost” Brigade, Rhee is the best South Korea has to offer. He was just a second lieutenant in the last book, but here, we travel with him to the north and see the war on the ground firsthand.
There’s also Cho Ho-jin, a North Korean defector who now works as a spy for Russian Intelligence. Bitter at his past experiences, he is determined to subvert and destroy the Kim regime. There’s also Kary Fowler, a humanitarian worker in North Korea who gets caught up in the conflict. The war culminates in a final showdown with the remnants of the Kim faction, holed up in a mountain fortress, armed with nuclear weapons.
Like most with most technothrillers, we read them for crisp, fast-paced writing, shifting POV, and a high-level overview of a war that could possibly happen in our lifetime. Red Phoenix Burning delivers on that.
Larry Bond Interview
1) What inspired you to write Red Phoenix Burning?
I gotta be honest. My agent called me and floated the idea. To my credit, I was completely on board as soon as he suggested it.
2) Was there any particular reason why you chose to set it in the continuity of Red Phoenix rather than our current timeline?
If you look at the “end state” of the first book, it wasn’t that different from the present real world, There has been a war, but like the first Korean war, the armies had retreated back inside their own borders, there was still a North and South, and there was still a Kim in power, although now it was the “Supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un, instead of the first book’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il. From a storytelling perspective, they’re almost interchangeable, although the current one may be the worst of the lot. It also provided us with a ready-made stock of characters that we could choose from; and we could add new characters, some of them with ties to the earlier ones. Our working title was “Red Phoenix: the Next Generation,” but we knew we couldn’t use that for the title.
3) Compared to the last novel, Rhee seems to have gained a much larger role, and I almost feel as if he is the main protagonist. Do you agree?
Yes. Rhee was a major character in the first book, but he has a bigger role in the was in the second, as befits his higher rank. His purpose in the first one was to present the South Korean point of view, especially of the army, which our research showed was dedicated and competent, but had different ways of doing things. We also felt it worked to have a Korean have such a major role in ending the civil war. Actually, we looked at possible roles for all the characters from the first book: Where would they be in 25 years? It was easy to imagine Rhee, with his good combat record, reaching high rank, and putting him in Special Operations meant we had a character we could put in the North as an observer, and later would take part in the fighting.
4) There were three main factions battling for supremacy in the North Korean Civil War. Do these factions really exist in North Korea?
Given that there’s precious little information coming out of there, yes, there appear to be three centers of power: The leadership, the Party, and the armed forces. We get hints of factions within the leadership, but given the apparent attrition, we didn’t want to get too specific. We imagined Kim’s government as a cross between the court of Louis XIV and a Mafia family.
5) What research did you do when co-writing Red Phoenix Burning?
Not as much interviewing, more intenetting. We were fortunate that an imploding regime is as much a humanitarian crisis as a military one, maybe more. There were plenty of discussions in non-military forums about the effects of a governmental collapse or civil war in the north. We also had the examples of other “failed states” to use. And one of our co-authors, Chris Carlson, had actually been to South Korea and discussed the implications with his opposite numbers South Korean military.
6) This is more of a question regarding the first novel, but what inspired you to write Red Phoenix?
In the 1980s, when we wrote the story, the risk of an invasion by the North had been everpresent since the 1950s. I had military friends who had been stationed in the ROK, and told stories about constant North Korean raids into the south, which continue to this day, by the way. In storytelling terms, there are massive forces present, but they are balanced against each other – static. Our task would be to knock them out of balance in the first chapter, and then write about what happened next.
The second story was different, in that it was an unexpected event, something that simply happened inside the North, and the story told how everyone else reacted to it.
7) Much has changed since you wrote Red Phoenix. Would you have ever guessed that North Korea would outlive the Soviet Union?
I’ve learned to not predict anything about international relations, and especially with the North. it’s a unique country, filled with built-in contradictions. I’m sure both Communist Russia and the present-day PRC regard the DPRK as an abomination. A dynastic communist state? Seriously? It’s simply an strongman dictatorship, which we’ve seen throughout history in many forms. Its most unusual feature is its longevity. The only reason China still supports it is that it’s strategic real estate on China’s border, and sending half of their foreign aid to North Korea is less expensive than having a failed state, or Lenin forbid, another Asian democracy there instead. Of course, that’s what happened at the end of RPB, but we solved that problem in the book by 1) guaranteeing a massive build-down of all military forces, which would be unnecessary in a unified Korea, and by Korea promising to buy lots of Chinese stuff.
8) Do you have a favorite character in Red Phoenix Burning?
Probably Cho. His role in the story grew as we wrote it. We created him – a spy – as someone who could give the readers a bug’s eye view of life in the North, and who might have a role in the third act. Instead, about the time that his Russian masters sent him into the hell that was Pyongyang on what he knew full well was a suicide mission, he was presented with the opportunity to do a good deed, and decided to quit without two weeks’ notice. And of course, once he was at the mission, and met Kary, the rest of their story wrote itself. So someone who as supposed to be a minor character not got to be the Big Damn Hero. He probably experienced the most character growth, and he got the girl. Worked for me.
9) What do you foresee in the future for Korea?
Not a clue. Given the inherent structural weakness in an any dictatorship, especially one built on an extreme cult of personality, at some point, there will be a coup/civil/war/revolution. This year? Ten years from now? Fifty? It will be bad for everyone in the North, because the government has control over everything. Some outside event may happen first that topples the cards. I’m sure COVID stressed them. What if an economic crisis in China meant they simply couldn’t send the necessary aid, and things started to fall apart? My belief is that bad as it is, a stable Kim regime is better than an unstable one, and any change or stress on such a rigid structure will create some instability.
10) What are you working on currently?
We’ve transitioned to publishing, and have our own company, the Admiralty Trilogy Group, that publishes naval-themed material, wargames, naval history, data annexes, and nonfiction book titles. We’re spending a lot of time with China these days, and just published China’s Navy, which is all about Chinese ships and aircraft from 1955 to the current day. We’ve been working on it for over a year, and it’s the best unclassified data you’ll find anywhere. We’ve got over fifty different products, with more on the way.