By Roger Tagholm
At the London Book Fair on Monday, North Korea was a hot topic of conversation — and not because of Kim Jong-un’s poorly-timed threats or Adam Johnson’s novel about life in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, taking the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Instead, it is the surfacing of two new books that offer rare, first-hand accounts of life in the mysterious and isolated nation.
First, agent Humfrey Hunter is selling Zombie Nation, the book of BBC Panorama reporter John Sweeney’s controversial trip to North Korea last month in which he pretended to be a student at the London School of Economics to gain access to one of the world’s most secretive countries. The program, aired last night (Monday), has led to complaints being made to the BBC by some students, and their parents, who believe they were effectively used as human shields in order for Sweeney and film crew to gain access. Visas to foreign journalists are denied in North Korea.
Not surprisingly, Hunter – who, wearing another hat, published Sweeney’s Scientology expose Inside the Church of Fear (Silvertail Books) – is enjoying much interest at the fair, but isn’t rushing to make a sale.
Meanwhile, Rider Publishing Director Judith Kendra has acquired Crossing the Border by Jang Jin-Sung, former State Poet Laureate of North Korea who was forced to flee to South Korea when a censored document in his possession went missing. It will publish in spring 2014. Says Random House: “The book offers an insight into life in North Korea. It details meetings with Kim Jong-Il and reveals the extreme poverty of ordinary North Koreans living under one of the harshest dictatorships in modern times. Jang Jin-Sung’s account of his break for freedom is riveting and reads like a thriller, full of suspense.”
Kendra made a pre-emptive deal with Marysia Juszczakiewicz of the Peony Literary Agency. “It is so rare to read a first-person account from North Korea,” she said. “To publish one so gripping and courageous is a privilege.”
Further Reading: “Frogs in a Well: Literary Life in North Korea”