Timely thrillers that sell millionsIn the prologue of Kim Jin-myung’s latest novel, “The Third Scenario,” U.S. President George W. Bush is preparing to wage war on North Korea.
The U.S. military has relocated forces from Iraq to Guam, and is beginning intensive military maneuvers. The Pentagon has centralized its Asian command in Japan, and is preparing for full-scale war on the peninsula.
But questions remain. Why did the United States evacuate its troops from the Demilitarized Zone to south of the Han River? Is the U.S. plotting to move its forces off the peninsula through Busan at some point in the war? If so, why?
The “third scenario” of the title is a secret plan for war in Korea, devised by President Bush and shadowy figures at Camp David. Such fictional intrigue ― along with plot developments so close to current events that they almost seem prescient ― have made Mr. Kim what his publisher calls, not unjustifiably, “Korea’s John Grisham.”
His first novel, “Morning Glories Have Bloomed,” sold more than 4 million copies, and “The Third Scenario” (published by Random House Joong-Ang, a joint venture of Random House and the JoongAng Media Group, which is affiliated with the JoongAng Daily) has sold 1.6 million in just two weeks. “The Third Scenario” will probably be translated into English, according to the publisher.
If his latest book is seen as incendiary, it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for Mr. Kim, 47. He has a history of writing provocative novels, usually involving conspiracies, about topical controversies in Korea.
“Korea Dot Com” imagined a secret plot between Microsoft and the Korean dot-com industry. “The Kidnapping of the Empress” dealt with the outrage in Korea over Japanese history textbooks’ whitewashing of the country’s military past.
He became a literary celebrity in Korea with “Morning Glories,” in which a South Korean chemist helped the North build a nuclear plant; it came out just after the 1994 standoff with the North over nuclear weapons. And as details emerge of Washington’s plans to reduce U.S. troop presence here by a third, “The Third Scenario” couldn’t be more timely.
“It will be read very closely in light of the current situation,” Mr. Kim said in an interview. “I hope some readers will go beyond simply absorbing the story.”
The book begins with the death of a novelist named Lee Jin-seo, who is found murdered in Beijing while writing a novel about Korea-U.S. relations. A Korean prosecutor finds that Lee’s unfinished book contained a scenario predicting a major political catastrophe in Korea, including a U.S. plan to attack the North.
The Bush administration’s “third scenario” turns out to be a plan to provoke full-scale war between the Koreas, with the United States staying mostly on the sidelines. Under this plan, the United States would dispatch a relatively small force to strike North Korea; when the North attacked the South in retaliation, the U.S. would pull out, and war would rage between the Koreas.
This would ensure heightened military tension in Asia, to the benefit of American weapons manufacturers.
Plenty of episodes in the book blur the boundary between fiction and reality. In a private aside during the six-way talks in Beijing over the North Korean nuclear issue, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell hints to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. won’t put much effort into settling the issue, preferring to keep the North alienated from the rest of the world.
The book also has a scene at the 2000 summit in Pyeongyang between the North’s Kim Jong-il and the South’s then-president, Kim Dae-jung. In this passage, Kim Dae-jung risks his security by getting into Kim Jong-il’s private limousine, because he knows it’s the only place at the summit that hasn’t been bugged by the CIA. (The novel also refers to CIA agents wiretapping the Blue House.)
In another chapter, a North Korean defector sends two South Korean college students on a secret mission to Camp David to wiretap Bush and his “black friends,” as Mr. Kim calls the sinister co-conspirators in the military and the weapons industry.
The story proceeds through a series of dramatic coincidences, and through dialogue that might seem too simplistic for high-ranking diplomats. (Perhaps in part for such reasons, highbrow literary types tend to dismiss Mr. Kim’s work.)
But Mr. Kim still makes the scenario seem plausible. He fogs the reader’s sense of distinction between fiction and reality by using real-world characters and details from actual events.
“I thought it was possible that President Bush would attack North Korea to gain advantage in the election,” he said. “So I needed more than a year to watch the situation.” By the time he finished the book, he said, it was clear to him that the election was drawing too close for Bush to declare war on the North soon.
Kim said he sacrificed dramatic effect at some points in favor of letting his political views come through more clearly. He calls the book an attempt to accurately portray the U.S. government’s intentions for Korea.
“It was dubious that the U.S. didn’t agree to the North’s demand for a non-aggression pact, when security assurances for the North was all they asked for in exchange for giving up nuclear arms,” said Mr. Kim.
“What does it mean when the U.S. pulls out its army from the peninsula and dispatches it to Iraq?” he asked. “Many of us dismiss it when some North Korean experts warn that these gestures by the U.S. are leading to an attack on the North.”
At one point in the book, Mr. Kim has a character suggest a provocative way to settle U.S.-North Korean relations: sending North Korean troops to Iraq. Kim said he has actually proposed this idea to a foreign security secretary at the Blue House, who told him the possibility was unlikely. But he disagrees.
“Why shouldn’t North Korea agree to the idea, if only the U.S. offers it?” Mr. Kim said. “It’s an opportunity for North Korea to earn foreign currency and smooth out its rocky relations with the U.S., becoming its ally. For the U.S., it’s an alternative to reduce American casualties in Iraq, which would be of great advantage to Bush’s re-election campaign.”
However unlikely this scenario may or may not be, the idea has drawn public attention; a local news Web site recently conducted a poll on the issue. Mr. Kim said he will soon discuss his idea with an American expert on North Korea, and may suggest that he pass it along to the Bush campaign.
While many of Mr. Kim’s ideas seem politically radical, his books have been criticized for being too nationalistic. He slips patriotic allusions into “The Third Scenario,” such as setting one scene at a fundraiser for Robert Kim, the Korean-American officer who was imprisoned for passing classified U.S. documents to South Korea.
Though the writer denies it, his new book bears signs of what could be viewed as anti-American sentiment. Mr. Kim reveals a distaste for Bush’s foreign policy, having his characters say things like, “Bush himself claims that he fought for anti-terrorism, but there wouldn’t be any terror without Bush.”
“There is a philosophical basis in my novels that encourages the readers to appreciate their cultural identity,” Mr. Kim said.
“People often mistake that for being ‘nationalistic’ or exclusive of other cultures, but characters of a variety of nationalities always cooperate in my novel to settle various dilemmas. I don’t see that as being anti-American.”
by Park Soo-mee