In the 1960s, a teenage girl is caught between North and South Korea when she agrees to be a spy for Seoul and go behind enemy lines in Park’s (When a Rooster Crows at Night, 2004, etc.) thriller.
Miyong is an 18-year-old war orphan in a work group on a South Korean island in 1967 when she accidentally stumbles across a battalion of disguised North Korean commandos. It’s just one of many secret North Korean attempts to commit assassinations and acts of terrorism and sabotage. She tells South Korean authorities, who use her information to kill all but one of the marauders. As a reward, they promote Miyong to a military-secretary post. She’s still dangerously naïve, however; soon, she’s badly compromised by Jongmi, an old friend who’s now the mistress of a North Korean spymaster. Jongmi tries to entice Miyong north of the 38th parallel with the lure of a reunion with relatives there. South Korean and American forces give Miyong a chance to redeem herself by training her in spycraft for a perilous rescue mission, which involves infiltrating a prison compound in the north. The operation also offers a tantalizing hint of a reunion with her parents, whom she thought were dead. Park tells a Cold War tale which has more of a sense of spiritual desolation than is typically found in spy thrillers. The heroine’s odyssey through the harsh, half-starved dictatorship of Kim Il-Sung is indeed an Orwellian nightmare. But the author is also willing to portray South Korea’s weaknesses and drawbacks, especially regarding their alliance with the Americans in Vietnam. She writes with empathy for Korean families, who were not only split by civil war and ideology, but also battered tragically by the imperial ambitions of Japan, China, the Soviet Union, and the West. The author’s prose is simple, direct, and effective throughout, eschewing pedantic detail. There are some religious elements, but Park never handles them in a preachy manner.
An espionage adventure that focuses more on its protagonist’s emotions and concerns than on James Bond–style aspirations.