Yesterday the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), what we usually call North Korea, had a successful test launch of their Unha-3 rocket, placing a Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into low Earth orbit. For the next few weeks it will travel around the Earth transmitting “The Song of General Kim Il-sung.” While this is billed as a scientific test, and I’m sure it has merit in that department, what it really means is that the North Koreans now have a ballistic missile that can hit any city in North America from their homeland. That Unha-3 is just a refined Taepodong-2 they’ve been working on for years. It also means that the cash strapped North Korean government can sell this missile to their allies in the Middle East.
But what do most of us really know about North Korea? We see images of goose stepping automatons on television. Military hardware rolling through Kim Il-sung Square in their capitol city of P’yongyang. Pictures of Kim Jong-il with his wild hair and coke bottle glasses. His porky son, Kim Jong-un. In point, they are caricatured. As a result we view them as ridiculous. Crazy. Not as a threat. This is unfortunate and dangerous.
When I set out to write my nuclear thriller The Silla Project, the first question I had to answer was where to set it. The plot began as a concept that could have been placed in any one of a number of countries with nuclear ambitions. We all know what those are because they are constantly in the news. But when I looked at North Korea I discovered it was the strangest place on Earth. Indeed, it is an alien planet. I had to set it there because I quickly learned that all my stereotypes about the Workers Paradise were egregiously wrong. I had heard of it, but I knew absolutely nothing about the place.
For starters, their entire culture is centered around the personality cult of the late, Great Leader, Comrade Generalissomo, Kim Il-sung, peerlessly brilliant leader and iron willed commander. But North Koreans are not crazy. Some of them are fanatical, but most of them are just hungry. They are held captive, all of them, in the world’s largest prison. It is surrounded by bars, filled with guns, and the population is held in check through starvation, privation, and a secret police network that makes the Gestapo look like crossing guards. They worship Kim Il-sung as a deity – though not as a god as westerners would think of a god – under a religious system called Juche sasang. P’yongyang is one giant shrine to him with thousands of statues and monuments of his likeness. This religion teaches them, among other Marxist ideals, that the United States – the imperialist agressor – is the cause of all their woes. They believe that the American forces stationed in South Korea are massing for imminent attack. If you visited there, you would think the Korean War, what they call The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, ended sometime yesterday and that they manged to win despite countrywide chemical and biological attacks by the United States along with widespread atrocities in which millions, yes millions, of civilians (mostly women and babies) were murdered by being thrown off bridges into icy rivers, burned alive, experimented on, tortured to death, etc. (Do a search on “North Korean Propaganda Paintings”) Even the staunchest opponents of the military in our own nation would find their claims laughable. It is an example of what you get when you have no critical review process. Indeed, critical review of anything will result in ten years in a concentration camp, where up to 10% of their population is spending this Christmas.
It took me years of study to understand North Korea. My novel, The Silla Project, was a decade in the making. Americans can’t travel to North Korea so I did the next best thing. I learned to speak and read Korean. Studied Taewkwondo to access the culture. Poured over maps and historical records. Learned their songs. Compared satellite photography to thousands of photographs to achieve spatial orientation. Ate their food. Interviewed retired nuclear scientists and government officials. Read dozens of books on everything from their geography to their military. Studied their history. I even located and read old Los Alamos technical reports from the Manhattan Project – after which The Silla Project is named. The research that went into this novel is unprecedented in today’s quick-buck literary market. It is more like the kind of research that James Michener and James Clavell used to put into their work.
To know more about North Korea and better understand why they appear to be so bizarre I urge you to read The Silla Project. For whatever reason it is the only thriller novel set in North Korea, and as everyone who has read it has told me, it will forever change how you think about one of the most dangerous and misunderstood places on Earth. It will also give you an excellent understanding of nuclear weapons, how they work, and why they are so darned hard to build. It is chock full of formerly classified information that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death for passing to the Russians. While much of this Critical Nuclear Weapons Design Information or CNWDI has been declassified it is still very hard to find, even harder to understand, and it took me years of diligent research to put it all together and present it in a way that is easily accessible to anyone.
Ironically however, I am not a nuclear scientist. I am a rocket scientist, which is exactly why I can’t say anything overly technical about yesterday’s rocket launch / missile test. Only that if the DPRK does have a nuclear weapon and if it is small enough to put on the tip of a missile it can now hit anywhere in the United States with only about thirty minutes warning.