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Excerpt: 'A Corpse in the Koryo'

James Church has an eye for detail. His book offers a rare Western glimpse inside North Korea's closed society. He says that many Westerners believe that living in the country is like "living on the moon." The reality is quite different, he says. In this excerpt, Inspector O has decided not to go to his office because there is a car parked outside that suggests bad things are happening there. Instead, he drives out into the countryside, where Church offers a glimpse of North Korea quite different from stereotypes.

The sun was shining full in my window when I woke with a start, past 8:00 a.m. My headache was gone, but I could tell it hadn't wandered far. The woman next door was complaining loudly that their flowers would all be dead by noon if her husband didn't go downstairs for some water, because the tap in their apartment wasn't working again. I should have been at the office by now. I yawned. Pak would cover for me if someone else needed the car, but I knew he was going to make me feel guilty when he found out how little I'd learned at the morgue. "Never mind, Inspector," he'd say, and turn his chair to the window. "We have plenty of clues already, mountains of clues. Who could possibly need an autopsy in a case like this? Glad you went to the morgue. Good use of the office vehicle. That almost makes up for the fact that you didn't bother to sign for it."

I was already late; Pak was only going to be unpleasant; I might as well get some more sleep. If the man next door had gone downstairs to get the water like his wife asked, that might have been possible, but the two of them started arguing about one thing, and one thing led to another. At least I could get some tea at work.

Driving to the office, I yawned and went over what the doctor had said the night before. "Ethnicity is not an identification." It wasn't much of an excuse, but it was worth a try with Pak. As I pulled into the gate at our compound, I saw a military jeep in one of the parking spots. I decided it was the wrong moment to put in an appearance, backed out, and turned onto the road leading toward the place where I'd been on photo-watch, waiting for the black car. I didn't know what I'd find when I got there; maybe driving over the same route would show me something I didn't know I had seen. I rolled down both front windows. If I drove fast enough, maybe the breeze would blow away my headache, which was back.

The day was bright and getting hot, but you could tell autumn was coming on. The sky was higher, bluer, without the flatness of summer. Farmers stood in small groups on the side of the road, staring at the fields, as if willing themselves to begin the work of harvesting the corn. The countryside was ripe. Back from the road, farmhouses sat like dwellings lost in a Central American jungle. Roofs were overgrown with squash vines; a wall of corn towered over the pathways that wound between the buildings. Here and there, a few women squatted on the edge of the fields, enjoying the clarity of the August morning.

I was focused on a couple of goats strolling across the road from the opposite shoulder when, out of nowhere, an oxcart lumbered onto the highway. In a split second it emerged from a dirt path in the field to my right, where it had been hidden by the corn. I slammed on the brakes, barely missed the goats and the back of the cart, and then began a skid that, after a few anxious moments, put me in a ditch about ten meters down the road. The oxcart continued plodding across the highway and disappeared into the cornfield on the other side. Two men ran over to the car. One of them, the older of the two, put his head in the open passenger window. "You all right? This is a damned unlucky stretch of road. People drive like crazy. We lose an ox a month. In July we lost three. We can't afford that."

I shoved the door open, climbed out, and made a quick check of the car. If I could get it out of the ditch, it would get me back to the office. Pak would murder me over the repairs. He wouldn't let us drive a car that was banged up, said it undermined our dignity. Worse, when it went to the repair shop, they would check the log, and he would have to explain why I had the car overnight and hadn't signed it in. Hell, I hadn't even signed it out.

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