The Korean Woman


“You don’t happen to know how to hijack a nuclear missile from the American arsenal, do you?”

We were standing on the kindergarten playground, watching our kids climb the jungle gym. The father of my son’s playmate had just told me that he was an astrophysicist working for Princeton university.

To my gratified surprise, he thought for a few seconds and then answered, “I could probably come up with something.”

By then, I’d been working on The Korean Woman for three months, and was finding myself hitting walls in terms of research. I had chosen for my subject ongoing nuclear brinksmanship between the US and the DPRK. Having tackled Israel in my last book, FALSE FLAG, I wanted a geopolitical conflict that would provide a comparable challenge for my returning heroine, Dalia Artzi.

The story concerned an undercover North Korean intelligence agent, a “sleeper” who had burrowed so deep into American society that she was loath to leave behind her new life when activated. And of course, the story involved nuclear weapons – I couldn’t catch the true flavor of what was going on between the US and the DPRK without including nuclear weapons.

But these were not easy subjects to research. I’d found bread crumbs to get me started on the right trails … defectors and moles and analysts writing about North Korea, and experts in nuclear arsenals writing about security and lack thereof. But much of what I needed was either too classified, too speculative, or too technical for me.

Hence the shot-in-the-dark playground question. Little did I realize how fruitful this line would prove. One advantage of living in Princeton, I learned, is that the parents of my children’s classmates have some pretty interesting jobs … and are often willing to share their expertise.

The astrophysicist, a gentleman and a friend, gave freely of his time and expertise. He introduced to me the idea of the quantum computer, then sat me down and patiently walked me through it … again … and again … and again.

Another parent on the same playground, it turned out, was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. His specialty happened to be missile interception. Of course, he couldn’t tell me anything classified. But he knew which articles to recommend, how to analyze the technical details, and where to go for further research (see HOW TO WRITE CONVINCING SPY FICTION ABOUT HIGHLY CLASSIFIED SUBJECTS).

On my daughter’s preschool playground, I found myself talking to an Air Force vet who had sat inside nuclear missile silos, who also gave generously of his time, knowledge, and experience.

And so I will always associate playgrounds with The Korean Woman. Largely, no doubt, because an extraordinary run of good luck and coincidence led to my conducting so much valuable research on them. But also because the playground symbolizes the primary conflict of the story – the domestic life that my sleeper agent Song Sun Young has cultivated, which she must leave behind when activated.

The Korean Woman brought me back around to where I started with my first book. Both are about young female enemy agents deeply embedded in America, who are activated and sent on missions that endanger life on earth with atomic fire. These two novels bookend my career thus far.