Humphrey Hawksley’s diplo thrillers, centred around the wild escapades of Major Rake Ozenna of the elite Eskimo Scouts, always stretch one’s incredulity as this junior James Bond character careers around the world. Sometimes he is a killer for a top Washington DC sleuth and sometimes he is rescuing women in crisis, but he always has a cause that is usually rooted in diplomatically sensitive remote islands like those in Alaska’s Bering Strait where Ozenna comes from.
In Ice Islands, the mistakenly-titled fourth and latest book in the Ozenna series, our hero is acting on behalf of the US as he tries, not quite single-handedly, to stop a Japanese Yakuza criminal gang from exploding a nuclear device on the Kuril Islands in Russia’s far east.
The Soviet Union seized the islands in 1945 from Japan, which calls them the Northern Territories and wants them back. In Ice Islands, Japan’s prime minister bows publicly to the aged leader of the family-controlled Yakuza gang a few days before its planned nuclear strike, thus displaying his support for the gang’s reassertion of Japan’s military might and recovery of its lost territory, plus a possible end to its alliance with the US.
Hawksley’s plot is therefore soundly based. Japan going nuclear is an active current debate, but Ozenna’s drama-clad and often erratic adventures always look almost a stretch too far for the real world, thrilling and entertaining though they always are.
I was feeling that once again as I got to a crunch point halfway through Ice Islands, but just at that moment, the Financial Times endorsed the idea of such an unthinkable plot with a report on North Korea’s oil smuggling.
A mammoth expose of “North Korea and the triads: gangsters, ghost ships and spies” appeared in the newspaper and online on March 30 with a Hawksley-style cast: a convicted gambling tycoon, a Hong Kong gold trader, and a racing car driver from Macau along with Chinese criminal groups, North Korean oil interests and intelligence operations.
“Triads, ghost ships and underground banks: an investigation shows how regional business figures linked to organised crime have helped facilitate illicit deliveries of hundreds of thousands of barrels” to North Korea, said FT.
This was the result of a long-running and unusual research collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), a revered London think-tank located in Whitehall that was founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1831. The cast they revealed was behind a network that helped to sustain North Korea’s military and nuclear weapons programme.
The story has been building for years. Back in 2017, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Bank of Dandong, a small Chinese bank that had assets of $10.66 billion, accusing it of facilitating millions of dollars in transactions for companies involved in North Korea’s weapons programme, FT reported in April.
The report starts with a Hong Kong-owned oil tanker, The Unica, violating UN sanctions by transferring oil to another ship last September in water just west of the North Korean port of Nampo. One of three foreign vessels sailing straight to North Korea, it has made at least 23 journeys to the country or its exclusive economic zone since 2019.
Researchers from RUSI have calculated that if it was fully laden during each of its 14 suspected transfers to North Korea between August 2021 and September 2022, the Unica could have delivered approximately 489,166 barrels of oil – equivalent to 98% of North Korea’s entire permitted annual quota.
“This is the most detailed evidence ever put into the public domain to show how North Korea uses people with high level connections to criminal networks like the triads to evade sanctions and finance their weapons programmes,” says James Byrne, director of the opensource intelligence and analysis research group at RUSI. “These networks are central to North Korea’s ability to continue to function and threaten the world with nuclear war”.
What the FT-RUSI reports (and a video version) have not of course told us is what the world’s intelligence agencies are doing deep in Hawksley-type undergrowth to interrupt the flow of oil. Imagine the novel that could be written around governments, secret service agents, business tycoons and rival international gangs from China, Russia, Iran, the US, the UK and elsewhere meddling with North Korea in that pot.
Hawksley has been reporting from India and the Indo-Pacific for more than 30 years, mostly as a BBC career foreign correspondent. He was stationed in Delhi after he was expelled from Sri Lanka in August 1986, where he had been reporting for a few months on atrocities and human rights abuses against the Tamils. That was his first foreign posting and was followed by stints in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Beijing.
He began as a novelist in the late 1990s with India-focused best-sellers Dragon Strike and Dragon Fire which included a nuclear war triggered by a Chinese strike on Mumbai. Other novels followed, leading to the launch of the Ozenna series in 2018 with Man on Ice based on the Russian invasion of Rake’s Alaskan island home, Man on Edge involving naval secrets on the Norway-Russian border, and Man on Fire with an electro-magnetic pulse attack over Europe.
Ice Islands matches the Dragon titles because it deals with a major international issue. “Japan could have a nuclear weapon in a very short time,” says Hawksley, who I have known as a fellow journalist for over 30 years. “The Trump presidency reinforced a view that it needs to have complete control of its defence and no longer rely on America. The push to change its pacifist constitution naturally ends with Japan as a nuclear-weapons state”.
In Ice Islands, a new inexperienced US president initially refuses to believe Ozenna’s Washington DC boss about the Yakuza gangland plan for a nuclear strike. Eventually, he comes round, just in time for a Bond-style ending when, inevitably, good broadly prevails.
That is a bland summary of the kernel of the plot which weaves much more violently through the 250 pages. Inevitably, Ozenna’s co-star is a troubled woman, part of the gangland family but appalled by its killings that begin the book. She is at a small peace conference on Aland Island in Finland’s Baltic Sea where the secret son of Russia’s leader is assassinated, and she’s centre stage with a risky future at the end. In between, she and Ozenna waver on their mutual attraction.
The only apparent connection between the plot and any ice islands is the location of the peace conference. That does Hawksley no favours because it does not include the “Man” title of the first three Ozenna books. It is also irrelevant to the main plot, which is about the disputed Kuril islands (they also appear in the latest Bond movie) and Japan going nuclear.
Perhaps we could have a sequel with a title that better describes the plot – maybe bringing in North Korean oil as well as China, and testing how Vladimir Putin would react if his islands were hit in a nuclear attack while he is preoccupied with Ukraine.