Discovering a boat smuggling drugs off the coast of the Noto Peninsula, the Japanese Coast Guard pursues the vessel. The craft discharges sophisticated anti-ship missiles, inadvertently killing a fisherman and his young daughter. Wilson Bennett, an analyst for the U.S. National Security Council, believes there’s a possibility that the missiles are traceable to North Korea, an indication that the country has made considerable technological progress. In addition, the exportation of that technology into Japan, used in an attack on that nation’s military personnel, would constitute an act of war. Meanwhile, Bennett learns from a humanitarian group operating an underground transport of illicit supplies—including Bibles—into North Korea that an engineer, Pyong Hae Han, with access to highly classified information about the government’s progress developing a nuclear missile, is looking to defect. But that kind of exfiltration is highly problematic: First, an engineer working on such a secretive project would never be allowed to leave the country, which means his rescuers will have to cross the North Korean border. In addition, he won’t depart without his family, which includes a child stricken with muscular dystrophy. To further complicate matters, Bennett confesses that none of the engineer’s story—including his identity—is confirmable. Bennett teams up with Trinh Archer—a U.S. diplomat with an expertise in organized crime and drug smuggling—to plan the joint operation of American and Japanese troops. Archer’s life is endangered when the crime boss overseeing the smuggling operation—Takada Kano—decides the diplomat’s investigation threatens his business.
Radcliffe (Goraiko: Japan’s National Security in an Era of Asymmetric Threats, 2014, etc.) is astonishingly knowledgeable about a matrix of subjects around which the novel revolves: Asian regional affairs, Japanese politics and culture, military technology, and the murky world of global spying. This is a stunningly well-researched tale. And while the story is both dense and complex, the author’s prose is mercifully transparent, and the plot is structured in a way that maximizes clarity. In addition, the drama is simply gripping, and Radcliffe provides a fascinating portal into the most reclusive regime in the world, and the macabre deprivations of even its more privileged citizens. And as engrossing and action-packed as the story is, the author never skimps on the meaningful construction of his characters. Bennett emerges as a multifaceted protagonist, a hardened analyst who has seen the ugly depths of human depravity but still retains his idealistic commitments, presumably the vestigial influence of his parents, who worked as missionaries in Asia. Radcliffe occasionally succumbs to the charms of narrative formulas—Archer establishes her toughness by physically punishing a coarse American soldier. When she verbally threatens his friends, one responds: “Holy shit lady, you’re damn right we won’t touch you!” The depiction of the Japanese criminal underworld is susceptible to similar tropes, with shopworn fictional devices ostensibly used to assist the lazier reader. Nonetheless, this book is an immersive and educational experience.
A skillful blend of political savvy, international espionage, and high drama.