Although a burnt-out journalist has switched careers, seeing his best friend killed drives him back into the fray. Dodging attempts on his own life, the bourbon-drinking, Bible-quoting son of a white Mississippian father and Korean mother searches for answers in the heart of darkness known as North Korea. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from this gripping thriller, so timely it’s positively eerie. Full-length print and digital copies available.
‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there.’
– B.B. King
Chapter 1: Panmunjom, Korean DMZ
On an early fall day when Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing were in an uproar over the latest North Korean outrage, a U.S. Forces van propelled me and three other camera people past the scenic barbed wire and tank traps, firebases and checkpoints of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Once again I contemplated the zone’s howling misnomer, but the thought no longer triggered a smile. That’s how old the border story was. I couldn’t complain. My band had no gigs scheduled for the next few days. All I was thinking was, I’d earn my shooting fee from AsiaIntel and get back to my music. I could use the money.
The South Korean sitting next to me finished some shots, closed his window, turned and spoke to me. “Chilly today.” He and the others worked for the Seoul bureaus of international news agencies. Hearing from U.S. Forces Korea about my scheduled visit, with several spare van seats just waiting to be filled, they’d decided to tag along and get some stock images. Agencies liked to keep plenty of stock on hand so they’d be ready for spikes in client demand.
“Could use a little sun.” The leaden sky blocked most of the light. Only later did it occur to me that it must have filtered out any vibes warning that things were about to turn truly awful.
GIs in Korea called the DMZ simply “the Z.” A buffer strip two and a half miles wide with equal parts north and south of the Korean War ceasefire line, it snaked more than a hundred fifty miles across the waist of the Korean peninsula.
“Birds at three o’clock,” the only woman in the van announced in Korean from the seat behind me. She swiveled to take the shot of Manchurian cranes flying low over a field. Rare wildlife flourished in the Z, thanks to the scarcity of humans. I joined the others in recording the image, not because it thrilled me but just in case AsiaIntel might have a use for it.
We passed through a checkpoint to enter Camp Bonifas, the razor-wire-fenced home of a few South Korean and American soldiers. I’d been there enough times to remember it was four hundred forty yards south of the line. Our van rolled to a stop. A fine mist dampened my face as we stepped out to enter the single-story lecture hall for the usual briefing on history and stats.
“Heck Davis,” I said, sticking my hand out to the crew-cut American public affairs officer who awaited us at the podium.
He lifted my mood by introducing himself as Major Player and then crinkling his eyes at my double take. “Frank Player is my name.” Somewhere along the line, he’d acquired the good-humored wisdom to accept and even enjoy the certainty that this conversation would come up again and again.
I obliged him. “I bet you pray to your sweet Lord every night for quick promotion to light colonel.”
“Won’t help much in view of my dad’s sense of humor. The name on my birth certificate is Francis Scott Key Player.” The major glanced down at his notes and cleared his throat — his signal to cut the chatter and take a seat so he could get on with the show.
A South Korean enlisted man projected a series of grainy photos and maps onto the screen. Player quickly got to the grisly highlight of his spiel. “Here’s a photo of Northern soldiers using axes to hack Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett to death in 1976. American and ROK soldiers had gone out to trim a poplar tree because its branches blocked their view. The Northerners didn’t want it trimmed.”
ROK — he pronounced it rock — stood for the Republic of Korea. That was the South’s official English name. The North went by Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. You had to spell out those initials. Nobody pronounced it dip-rock or de-prick, although the country’s inhabitants were often called Norks.
The major recounted another fatal dust-up: the defection in 1984 of Vasily Yakovlevich Matuzok, a twenty-two-year-old Soviet citizen working as a diplomatic trainee at the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang. Matuzok was a member of a tour group at Panmunjom. He handed his camera to another tourist, asking to have his photo taken. Then he sprinted across the line, zigzagging to keep from being shot by North Korean guards. Northerners in hot pursuit penetrated about a hundred fifty yards into Southern territory. “One ROK soldier and three North Koreans were killed in a twenty-four-minute firefight.”
It was a relief to get out of the lecture hall. Player led us into the Joint Security Area. The JSA occupied part of what once had been a farming community called Panmunjom — Plank Bridge Village. Negotiators meeting there had agreed on the 1953 armistice. The JSA’s heart was a row of single-story, bright blue buildings that looked like temporary classrooms at an overflowing suburban school. The two sides’ military representatives continued to meet there when they wanted to exchange insults and blow smoke in each other’s faces. Every now and then they managed to iron out some problem, but in more than six decades they’d never gotten around to officially ending the war.
Each of the one-room buildings had two entrances, one in each side’s territory. The border that had emerged from the contending armies’ advances and retreats between 1950 and 1953 went down the middle of the conference tables. Negotiators could sit in their own territory and still face their adversaries.
If you thought of Panmunjom as a theme park, the theme was intimidation. Each side had erected sky-high flagpoles, giant flags and grandiose building façades.
As we walked on the tarmac bordering the truce huts’ southern ends, an opening between two of them gave me an opportunity to look across the line. It appeared that my reporter buddy Joe Hammond hadn’t arrived yet. Joe was on the fourth day of a visit to North Korea. Because of Pyongyang’s strong allergy to foreign news media, he’d gone in as a member of a group of ordinary sightseeing tourists. I’d timed my presence to coincide with his tour group’s scheduled arrival at the northern side.
I envied Joe. I’d been in the North only once, to cover the New York Philharmonic concert in 2008. That visit had been even shorter than Joe’s package tour. And instead of focusing mainly on the country and its people, my job had been to stick close to the American musicians. Still, even a brief taste had been enough to whet my interest in what was happening north of Panmunjom.
My current assignment to gather footage from the southern side of the Cold War border relic made plenty of sense from the editors’ standpoint. It was one of those times when outsiders seriously wondered whether young ruler Kim Jong-un had gone full-scale, start-a-war bonkers — even as they worried that his Washington, D.C., counterpart was about to launch a preventive first strike.
The third-generation dictator disliked adult supervision and any hint of competition for power. He’d been on a roll since his headline-hogging liquidation of a mentor uncle in late 2013. His homicidal purges had peaked in early 2017 when hirelings smeared VX nerve agent on his older half-brother’s face in a Malaysian airport terminal.
He had paused his barrage of external provocations the next year to promote a peace offensive that his enemies — at first cautiously welcoming it — had eventually denounced as “fake,” another cynical Pyongyang trick. With the collapse of that latest “denuclearization and peace process,” Kim had resumed lashing out at his enemies.
Once again, leaders of countries concerned were hyperventilating in helpless frustration. They needed to do something, but their advisors were unable to think of much of anything that wouldn’t make matters worse. A preventive strike, against Kim personally or his nuclear program or both, quite likely would prompt a retaliatory Northern artillery attack wiping out the Southern capital, Seoul — restarting the Korean War.
So should politicians and diplomats call for yet another round of diplomatic talks? What would be the point? The North had made clearer than ever that it wasn’t about to give up its nuclear weapons. Instead, the country was warning — and showing — that it was a force to be dealt with. Three major challenges had come within the previous two months alone.
Seventeen South Korean human-rights activists, preparing to launch balloons bearing leaflets and miniature radio receivers into Northern territory, had died when their fishing vessel exploded and sank. Even while denying that the cause was a Northern torpedo, Pyongyang’s spokespersons had gloated that the puppet traitors deserved their fate.
A drone spewing out deadly sarin gas had penetrated an air-conditioning vent on the roof of the headquarters of a hawkish Tokyo newspaper known for demanding that Japan develop its own nuclear weapons arsenal as a deterrent. The attack clearly had been intended to terrorize any Japanese old enough to remember the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s gassing of Tokyo subway passengers in 1995. (Coincidentally the number killed had been precisely the same, a dozen.)
Another obvious goal had been to remind the world that North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction were not confined to nukes. Pyongyang had denied launching the drone. At the same time, its propaganda outlets had advised the newspaper’s personnel to get their affairs in order because their days were numbered.
And then — no doubt calculating that the just-launched U.S. invasion of Honduras would keep the American president’s hands full for long enough that Pyongyang could get away with it — Kim had hatched an even more stunningly provocative stunt. He’d lobbed an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile smack into the U.S. missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll, known as “the world’s largest catcher’s mitt,” in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
The only casualties had been a pair of young, tanned American contractor personnel shown struggling in photos that flashed around the world. The man and woman, Speedo- and bikini-clad respectively, had miscalculated and drowned in an attempt to body surf on the turbulence as the missile sank into the Kwajalein lagoon.
Inside-the-Beltway, pundits had commenced wringing their hands over that demonstration of the enemy’s aim. Pyongyang’s spokespersons, meanwhile, hadn’t bothered to suppress smirks while claiming for the record that North Korea, innocently, had been practicing for a satellite launch. It was purely “accidental” that the “rocket” had come down at a U.S. Army base and not at some other spot in the vast Pacific Ocean.
While the other camera people fanned out, I stationed myself near the entrance to an alley that ran between two central Joint Security Area huts. The mist-dumping cloud had moved but the sky was still gray. Through the alley I saw, about twenty yards away, the Panmungak, a wide but shallow observation building atop which the North some years before had built an extra story as an additional symbol of national might.
Although my camera was set up to switch back and forth with the flick of a dial, my main assignment was to shoot video, not the stills that I’d taken for most of my news career and still preferred. Few people remember video as well as stills. Think Eddie Adams’s South Vietnamese colonel executing Viet Cong suspect, or Malcolm Browne’s burning monk. Black and white stills, especially, because you see them in the abstract, are the pictures that sear themselves into your brain. AsiaIntel, though, was an Internet-based news organization. Like many others using the same medium, the editors liked to post full-color moving pictures. I could handle that. I’d learned to make videos to promote my Tokyo band.
Preparing to drop my gear, I glanced at the forward guards. Maybe three yards in front of me, two ROK soldiers stood just inside the alley. They faced the North Korean side. Opposite them, a Northern pair, instead of looking toward the South Koreans, faced each other. All the guards on both sides wore holstered pistols — Joint Security Area rules permitted only handguns. All the men were large and noticeably fit. All glowered. They’d been handpicked, I knew, for their menacing looks.
“Are they out on our account?” I asked the major, who stood a few feet away.
“I’m guessing there’s a tour group visiting their side. The Northern guards always come out for the tourists who ride down from Pyongyang. Of course, the ROK guards follow suit.”
I set up my tripod.
“Ever since the Matuzok defection,” Player added, “it’s been the Norks’ drill for the two guards in front to stare toward each other like that.”
“I remembered that part. Peripheral vision. They can watch for any weirdness that might come down, either side of the line.”
As I fixed the camera to the tripod, a dozen or so non-Asians on the northern side entered my line of sight. Seeing Joe among them, I grinned at him. The Grand Korean People’s Touring Company had brought him to the border right on schedule. If I followed my impulse to wave, his hosts might press him to explain why a tourist was acquainted with a news cameraman. Anyhow, the major had given us the usual warning not to gesture — it would be “provocative.”
I started the camera rolling and focused on him. Joe didn’t grin back but peered intently in my direction from the broad steps coming down to ground level from the Panmungak.
Spotting some Asians in civvies, I took them to be the North Korean tour group leaders. Three men ranging from youngish to middle-aged wore dark suits, white shirts and tightly knotted neckties.
The woman with them was so interesting looking that I zoomed in for a closer look. I judged she was in her thirties. She wore a conservative black dress — and a gold watch and necklace set with stones that glinted sufficiently even on that gloomy day to suggest they might be diamonds. But it wasn’t just her getup and the fact she was pretty that made her so striking. The regal way she held herself bespoke a confidence I didn’t detect in her colleagues. In her body language, she was more like the big-hatted People’s Army officer escorting the group, who gestured with command presence as he made his points.
Despite the chill in the air, Joe wore no jacket, as usual. The bodybuilder’s physique he liked to show off left no space for wrinkles to form in his green and white striped, short-sleeved shirt. Still, a closer look at him snapped me out of my boredom and put me on alert. There was something wild in his eyes, something coiled and edgy about his posture as he walked down the building’s steps toward the principal conference hut, the one to my left. Instead of predictably gazing ahead to take in the unfamiliar view of the border looking north to south, he darted nervous glances from side to side.
I kept my camera pointed at him. Our AsiaIntel editors liked footage that showed reporters expending shoe leather for on-the-scene reporting, as he was doing. As I looked through the viewfinder from my vantage point about ten yards from him, I felt that something was dead wrong with the picture. I couldn’t detect even the slightest hint of the sardonic smart-ass I’d been horsing around with since our days as middle school kids in Mississippi.
Moving right up to the main conference hut, crouching as if to look into a window, Joe gritted his teeth; he seemed to focus intently on something. Only later did I guess that what he’d been watching was the east-facing North Korean guard’s reflection in the window glass.
That guard turned to check on him. Joe turned at the same time. Still crouching, he bent forward and, legs churning now, rammed his head into the guard’s belly, knocking the wind out of him. Without breaking stride he scooped up the North Korean — who was taller than Joe but not as broad — and used him as a battering ram to knock over the west-facing guard, who had started to reach for his pistol.
“What the fuck!” I kept my camera pointed at Joe and rolling, not about to miss a frame of the action.
Dropping the first guard atop the second one on the sand, Joe dashed toward me. With his right hand, he yanked his passport from his shirt pocket and waved the document, shouting, “U.S. citizen! U.S. citizen!”
The two North Korean forward guards scrambled to their knees, drew their pistols and fired in Joe’s direction. Their backup had joined the fray.
Joe had surprised them all sufficiently that he made it around the South Korean end of the hut and angled right. I swiveled to keep him in the picture. Glancing at me, he flashed his trademark wry grin. Heading toward the rear area that I’d just left, passing between me and the hut, he shouted, “Sixty-seven twenty!”
At that point he should have been out of the Northern guards’ sight, the hut sheltering him from their fire. It was against JSA rules for them to cross the demarcation line in pursuit. Rules be damned, some were already over the line. Joe spotted them, zagged again and put on an extra burst of speed. The two South Korean forward guards, along with a backup patrolling behind them, pulled their own pistols and fired at the Northern guards. One Northerner went down. Another rounded the corner of the hut.
Joe crumpled and fell in front of me. Blood poured out of his back and a separate stream formed a pool under his chest. The bullet looked to have gone clean through his heart. I vocalized, loudly, my grief and outrage. “Gaeseki ya!” Sons of bitches! But my newsman’s instinct kept me standing there, my camera following the continuing firefight. There wasn’t a thing in the world I could do for my friend.
His left arm was splayed out so that the palm faced me. On it, I saw three scrawled letters of the alphabet — looked like “CDs” was what he’d written.
Joe’s “Keys to Success as a Foreign Correspondent,” which he’d enjoyed enumerating to young wannabes, had numbered only two: “Always carry a pen, and never pass up an opportunity to take a leak.” He was forever jotting notes, in his self-devised shorthand based on all-capital block letters, whether or not paper was handy.
I kept the camera rolling as reinforcements from both sides arrived on the scene. Two North Korean guards were down. A ROK loudspeaker spewed out an announcement in Korean, laced with so much static I could barely make out the message to Northerners: The border-crosser was dead. They should end the confrontation now and avoid further casualties.
Major Player rounded up us news people and hustled us to the rear. In moments we could no longer see the demarcation line. The shooting had stopped; now there was only shouting. I guessed some macho types on the other side were spoiling to continue the fight. In any case, the shouting ceased as well. Cooler heads had prevailed.
* * *
Ashen-faced, Major Player tried to usher us into the van. “We’ll get you folks back to Seoul.”
I was still in shock, but not to the extent I’d stand for that. I tried to keep my voice steady. “No way are we going anywhere without filing first, Major. This is big news — ‘American killed running across Korean DMZ’ — and we’re the ones to break it.” The wire people nodded and grunted agreement.
Player considered. “OK, come to my office.” While using his Internet connection to transmit what we’d shot, we phoned our editors.
I spoke softly when talking about the victim by name, so the others wouldn’t hear that exclusive information. Lang Meyer typed a news flash as he questioned me. As he finished uploading it, he said he was dialing Joe’s parents on another phone. He asked me to call the widow. He didn’t want them to get the news first from the images that were about to appear on television sets and smartphones everywhere. Before he ended our call I heard him speaking in a choked voice. “Colonel Hammond, this is Langan Meyer, editor of AsiaIntel, calling from Hong Kong. I’m afraid I have bad . . .”
I dialed Evelyn’s number in Tokyo. I was close to losing it as I gave her the news.
Her end of the conversation was mostly sobs with only the occasional coherent phrase. “I had a bad feeling when he said he was going to that awful country and now . . .”
Bits of “Duncan and Brady,” one of Joe’s favorite songs, ran through my head: “Brady fell down on the barroom floor . . . Women all cryin’. . .”
When Evelyn caught her breath, I rang off with a promise to talk again later. The major had been on the phone, too. He stood up and announced that the dead man’s passport identified him as an American citizen. The other three cameramen shot video of that announcement. Noticing that I hadn’t done that, they eyed me with interest and asked Player for the name.
“Sorry, but we have to withhold the name until next of kin have been informed.”
One of the wire people, the woman, turned to me. “He yelled something to you. Did you know him?”
We four were competitors but I was also part of the story. Since I’d filed already and scored a scoop by being first to report Joe’s identity, I couldn’t begrudge the other three an impromptu press conference. I nodded. The Koreans pointed their cameras at me. Major Player grabbed a pencil and pad.
“He was Joseph Hammond, a staff reporter and editor for AsiaIntel specializing in financial stories. Next of kin have just now been notified.”
“Seen that byline,” said one of the Korean men. “Makes no sense — financial reporter runs across. Why not just wait, go home after four-five days’ sightseeing?”
Noticing the photographer’s round, black-rimmed Harry Potter eyeglasses, I couldn’t help thinking of the incongruity: We were talking not about a magical fantasy, set at Hogwarts, but about a real person who had died. I put that out of my mind and gave him a straight answer. “Beats me all to hell.”
He tapped his temple with an index finger. “Any problem in the head? Suicide on his mind?”
“I knew him well and there was no sign whatsoever of anything like that.”
“What’d he yell at you?”
“ ‘Sixty-seven twenty.’ ”
“Maybe something from scripture. He knew a lot of verses.”
I visualized wire agency editors poring over desk Bibles to make sense of the doomed man’s final utterance.
They asked me for Joe’s hometown and current base. The answers — Gulf Springs, Mississippi, and Tokyo, Japan — would have been the same if I’d been the one killed.
“Did he have a family?”
“A wife, no kids” — yet. Evelyn was five months pregnant. Joe wouldn’t be around to watch his child grow up. “I’ve got no idea how this came to happen — and I’m sure you’d get the same answer if you asked his parents and wife, so I hope you won’t intrude on their private grief. But I can tell you he was one of the great reporters.” I managed to keep my voice from breaking as I spoke but couldn’t hide the tears.
The other newsies went to file updates. The major picked up the handset of an ancient Bakelite phone that had no dialing mechanism and relayed to someone on the other end of the line an account of what he’d heard from me.
When Player got off the phone I asked, “Can we talk with the post commander?”
“Commander’s too busy. You can pose any questions for him to your escort, Mr. Cha, on the drive back to Seoul. We’ll get back to you with the answers.” He paused as a sympathetic expression replaced his officious one. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“I appreciate that.”
The unavailability of the commander was OK with me. My task just now was to reclaim my van seat, pull out my laptop and write the obituary. Naturally, I mentioned Joe’s most notable series and the acclaimed book he’d based on it, Burma Shave, in which he’d laid out the details of vast, systematic corruption on the part of the Myanmar junta.
I told about a childhood spent on a series of Air Force bases, the last of which had been Mississippi’s Keesler. I made a note, since it was relevant to what he’d just done to the North Korean guards, that he’d won the state 150-pound high school wrestling championship. The final paragraph said an evening of remembrance would be scheduled at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
Chapter 2: Seoul
In my room, I emailed the draft obit to Lang Meyer. I had the TV on and was reliving the morning. I watched footage of Joe going down — including my close-up footage, which AsiaIntel had shared — and of the wire guys interviewing me. I heard talking heads and anchors offer pretty much useless guidance. I took a bite out of a room-service sandwich, tasting only the bitterness of the knowledge that my friend was gone.
Lang phoned. “Thanks for the obit. It made me think about how close you two were. But there’s a problem. Reporters all over the world are calling up demanding more information. ‘Why’d he do it?’ ‘Did he go crazy?’ ‘Was it some bizarre way of committing suicide?’ There’s nothing to tell them except, ‘We think he was perfectly sane.’ ” With his distinct North of England accent, Lang pronounced the first syllable of “perfectly” a little bit like the way the French say un peu.
“Yep. A wild man to the end but as sane as anybody I know.”
“I saw you answering the competition’s questions on TV. You looked admirably blank about the scriptural reference. You didn’t fool me for a second since I remember that boffo routine you two had where you’d stand at attention, snap your heels and demonstrate the Bible-quoting competition you’d been into back in your Mississippi days.”
“Right. So you’ve had no trouble figuring out where ‘Sixty seven twenty’ came from.”
“‘Six thousand seven hundred and twenty asses.’ Seventh chapter of Nehemiah, sixty-ninth verse.”
“I wonder why those would be his last words.”
“He meant, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down.’ ”
“Some of the reporters who’ve phoned here wanted to know if he was some kind of religious fanatic, like that Kenneth Bae who got himself imprisoned in North Korea — you remember, the Korean-American missionary who’d been taped promoting a Joshua-at-Jericho scheme to pray down the walls of the regime. At least one paper, the New York Post, has ignored my denial. They cast Joe as another Bae.”
“Even the one’s a bummer. I shouldn’t have been so enigmatic.”
“How long before your band’s next gig?”
“Just over a week. Dry season.”
“Any journalist visas in your passport?”
“Nope. Renewed last year, well after I’d gone full time with the music.”
“How about the current trip to Seoul, for us?”
“Tourist stamp at the airport’s good enough for the South Koreans if you’re not staying long. Why?”
“You might be able to fool the North Koreans. I hope you’ll accept an extension of your assignment.”
“What you got in mind?”
“We need to track down what Joe was on to up there, and especially what sent him over the line. I’m thinking you might be able to get into Pyongyang with the same tour outfit that took Joe in. Retrace his steps, use any spare time to follow up whatever clues you find.”
“Why not send one of your staff people?”
“They’d all have trouble getting in. We had to get Joe a clean passport, with no journalist visas, so the North Koreans would accept him for the trip. That took a while, and I want to move faster on this. One reason: Washington already had started working on reinstating its on-and-off ban on U.S. passport holders going to North Korea as tourists. What happened to Joe is bound to inspire a raft of political tweets and editorials saying lifting the ban was a mistake that urgently needs fixing — and not only the yanks but everyone else, too, should stay away. There could be a snowball effect on other countries’ policies.”
“I was always a camera guy, not a reporter.”
“You have a reporter’s instincts and your copy comes in clean. Anyhow, I’ve noticed that as a songwriter you do both music and lyrics. The news business in the Internet era is getting away from the old words-versus-pictures division of labor. If selfies by Joe at the DMZ had seemed sufficient, even the current North Korea story would have been strictly a one-journalist show. We wouldn’t have sent in a star shooter from Tokyo.”
“It’s tempting. I’d love to be the one to get the story — for Joe. But talk about suicidal behavior. The North Koreans have seen and heard me on TV.”
“Disguise yourself. That’s something you’re good at, as I’ve noticed whenever I’ve seen you on stage. How many hats do you own, anyhow? With your grasp of the language and culture, maybe you could fly under the radar up there. Some of your family escaped from the North, as I recall.”
“Place called Kaesong.”
“You’re fluent in Korean. That’s the most important thing.”
“My grandmother made sure of that. But I’m no expert, Lang. I’ve only been up north once — a quick in and out to photograph American fiddlers and percussionists in Pyongyang.”
“I looked for ways to get in for a serious visit. Almost copped a two-week journalist visa once. But when I went to their consulate in Beijing to pick it up, the authorities had changed their minds. They turned me back. After they started encouraging tourists, I thought of playing sightseer. But I couldn’t stand the thought of getting more of the same old same old that so many other hacks were bringing back.”
“Rare glimpses of the hidden reality of the Hermit Kingdom,” Lang intoned in a spot-on parody of a pompous newscaster’s mellifluous delivery.
“Exactly. I didn’t want to spend my own money to produce some predictable piece of crap. I’d have gone in on a commercial tour if a news organization wanted to give me an assignment. But then I left the news business. First priority had to go to my performing career. That last part hasn’t changed. As much as I want to see justice done for Joe, I wonder if doubling back is a good idea.”
“I can understand that. And there’s personal risk. They pulled an eighty-five-year-old American veteran off a tour and arrested him for his ‘hostile actions’ during the Korean War six decades before. And don’t forget that fraternity boy, Warmbier, who thought it would be cool to steal a propaganda sign but got sentenced to fifteen years.”
“I was just thinking of Warmbier. His coming home in a coma and dying was the immediate reason the State Department slapped on that tourism ban in the first place.”
“Right. Give it some thought and let me know in a day or so. Evelyn is on her way to Seoul. Can you stick around long enough to help make arrangements for retrieving Joe’s body.”
“Will do. Was Joe working on a story on music discs?”
“I’ve read that private traders in North Korean street markets deal in South Korean and Western CDs, along with video discs. Bothers the hell out of the authorities because they want to keep out subversive foreign culture.”
“Old story. Discs wouldn’t have been central to what Joe was planning.
“Maybe it was the kind of CDs the banks sell.”
“Is there something you haven’t told me?”
“One of those palm-of-the-hand notations Joe would make when there weren’t even any drink coasters for him to scribble on. I noticed it — just the three letters — when he fell. You may have to squint to see it in my footage.”
“That’s a serious clue.” I heard excitement in Lang’s voice. “The dude turned up something about certificates of deposit, something he thought might help track the Kim money. It was a long-term project of his.”
We were saying goodbye when Lang added, “We’re going to miss Joe.”
I wanted a drink but had one more duty. Why not combine the two? I put down a couple shots of duty-free bourbon, poured again and picked up the phone to call Mississippi.
* * *
It was past midnight in Gulf Springs but I knew the habits of Col. Pete Hammond, retired from the Air Force and currently selling real estate part-time. He was still awake. He told me his wife Ruth had taken a sedative and gone to bed.
I went over again what he’d already heard from the government and seen on TV. Commiserating with him, I had to acknowledge I couldn’t think of answers to most of his questions, which were variations on: “Why’d he do it?” I didn’t mention that Lang had asked me to look into that big question. I did ask the colonel to explain to the rest of the family that there would’ve been nothing to gain by leaving my camera and rushing over to Joe after it happened.
“Don’t worry about that, Heck. I heard from the Pentagon. Death was instantaneous. Ruth and I watched the footage you shot. There was nothing anyone could’ve done. Remember when you two were Boy Scouts practicing first aid? Joe came home repeating that old military crack that had made it into Scout lore: ‘Shot through the heart? Just wrap a tourniquet around his neck.’ ”
The colonel’s voice caught when he said that, but he resumed talking. He told me they really appreciated my parents’ visit earlier in the evening, and the spicy Korean rice, meat and vegetable dish Mama had brought. “That bibimbap was still hot from the oven, in stone bowls — just the comfort food to get our bodies and minds through the evening. We almost felt we were there, with you, beside him.”
That remark got to me, but following the grieving father’s example I steeled myself. Then I called my parents, who had emailed to say they’d wait up for me to phone when I could. We went through much the same conversation. “It’s almost like losing one of our own,” Pop said.
Again I avoided mentioning Lang’s request that I go north. Even so, the mere fact I was on the Korean peninsula was enough to worry Mama. “Festus, be careful!” She was one of the few people who refused to call me Heck, the nickname Joe had given me when we were in our early teens. “Those awful communists got your grandfather and uncle, and now they’ve killed Joe.”
She had a point about the danger. I’d been lucky, pretty much unscathed ever since I’d turbocharged my early career by covering the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Joe’s luck, after much less exposure to the bang-bang, had run out.
The last call was to Fatback Hawkins, an old Mississippi bluesman pal. I’d meant to phone and check up on him anyhow. He’d been fighting lung cancer and I never knew whether a conversation would prove to be the last. He’d always been a night owl, and sure enough, he answered on the first ring. From his slow, relaxed voice I could tell he’d likewise been at the bourbon.
Fatback had known Joe, encouraged his trumpet playing and even arranged some joint performing gigs for the three of us. He had a TV in his sickroom and he’d seen the news. “Heck, you spend your whole life living and learning and then you die and forget it all. Ain’t that a shame?”
The last time I’d seen Fatback he’d been propped up in his bed, popping chemotherapy medications and washing them down with bourbon. “How’s that wonder drug treatin’ you? What they call it, again? Ni-something?”
“Nivolumab. Thought it helped for a while, Heck, but I feel like I ain’t gonna make it.”
I told him I might be headed to North Korea.
“You take care y’self, Heck. Anybody bother you, get ‘em in the grits if you got to.”
* * *
I took a cab to an Italian place in Itaewon and ordered pasta. Probably it would have been tasty enough, but when the waiter brought it I was preoccupied with remembering my old friends, one gone and one not much longer for this world.
By the time I snapped out of my funk and picked up the fork the food was cold. Leaving the restaurant, I dropped by a jazz joint down the street and took in the first set. The trumpeter’s playing reminded me of Joe’s. How we’d loved to fling trash talk at each other as we jammed at his home or mine. More than once I’d gotten his goat by teasing that he was actually playing not a heroic trumpet but a flugelhorn, a lowly sidekick of an instrument.
Fortunately, the place was dimly lit. No one could see the moisture that collected around my eyes. I could have used the company of a fellow mourner to get me through the evening, but Evelyn wasn’t due to land until a quarter to nine. By the time she reached the hotel after the long ride from Incheon Airport, she’d be exhausted. Back in the room, I tried unsuccessfully to distract myself with television. Finally, I gave up and decided to call it a day, see if I could get some sleep.
* * *
The phone rang at seven the next morning. It was Evelyn. “Meet me for breakfast?”
In the coffee shop, I tried to keep the conversation focused on the boring but lulling details of arrangements until the plates were cleared away and she was on her third cup of coffee. Then I asked the big question: Could she manage with the child?
A decade younger than Joe and me, Evelyn was working in personnel for an American bank. I didn’t know how well or poorly she was fixed. She was an attractive lady, a smart, funny strawberry blonde. I figured she’d find another partner eventually, but hoped she wouldn’t feel financial pressure to make a premature commitment. I had no idea because Joe hadn’t made a habit of discussing family money matters even with me.
“Depends. The plan until yesterday was to quit my job and be a stay-at-home mom. It’s not my style to hire a nanny and go right back to working full time. But you know Tokyo life. Joe and I like” — she caught herself — “we liked to travel and go out a lot. There’s not much money saved up; no home equity, since the apartment is rented.”
“You said it depends. On what?”
“As you know, Joe was investigating shady transactions and scary people in some not-so-stable countries. A few months ago the company gave him a nice life insurance policy. Joe never mentioned it, but Lang told me on the phone yesterday. The policy even covers getting killed reporting in a war zone. The payout would be enough for me to buy a little place somewhere, maybe near my parents or Joe’s, stay home until it’s time for him to start school — I checked; it’s a boy — and then maybe start back to work part time or full time.”
“But there’s a catch.” She reached into her handbag for a tissue. “The policy has a suicide clause. If they decide Joe meant to get himself killed, the way those creeps on TV keep suggesting, we can end up getting nothing.”
“Do you think that’s what he did?”
“Absolutely not. He wasn’t the type. You knew him as well as I did.”
“That’s what I think, too. He sure looked weird at the moment just before he made his run for it, but I figure that must have been because he saw himself as being in danger.”
“Lang wants me to head up to North Korea and try to find out. I’ve decided to go.”
Now I’d said it. Evelyn’s reaction was complicated. Once again she was close to tears. “I’m going to worry about you. Considering what happened to Joe, you’ll be taking a big risk. I feel responsible because you’ll be doing it for us — for Joe, for me, for our son.” She patted her tummy. “I appreciate your friendship and your bravery, but isn’t there some other way to figure out what was in Joe’s mind?”
I looked her in the eyes. Didn’t want her consumed with worry, so I had to make this speech a good one. “Sure, concern for my buddy, his widow and his child seem like good reasons to go and snoop around. But you shouldn’t feel responsible, Evelyn. There are other factors that don’t involve you at all. Start with my own family’s abiding grief and bitterness since my grandfather and uncle disappeared in that same territory.”
Right away I could see that focusing on me was distracting her from her own grief, so I plunged ahead. “And there’s another factor. I didn’t get into photography because I liked pretty pictures. What I liked was news stories — told with pictures or words or both. I used to be just as much of a news fiend as Joe. Until close to the end, I was relying on plain old denial to keep me from facing the fact that the supply of serious, untold stories I could tell well with photos had dropped drastically.”
“I do know what you mean. Joe used to complain, too: ‘Japan’s going through a news drought.’ ”
“Ecclesiastes said it all: ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done . . . ’ ”
“And there’s nothing new under the sun! Joe liked to quote that same verse.”
“Eventually it got to the point where my typical assignment was showing up at an investment bank or hedge fund office and taking ‘environmental’ shots — nearly always in color — of some suit surrounded by the luxurious trappings of his position. My job was to capture his athletic figure, his determined visage and his perfect tailoring for the pages of a slick financial magazine that paid its way by peddling platinum watches and Lamborghinis to him and his fellow masters of the universe. It was male fashion photography for a mostly male readership.”
My rant got a half-laugh out of Evelyn.
* * *
Evelyn left for her room while I signed the breakfast check. I reflected on my situation. Yielding now, temporarily, to the old pull of real news, I couldn’t think of anybody better to work for than Lang Meyer.
Too many hotshot editors were in the habit of deciding ahead of time what the story would say. Only then would they assign people to assemble the evidence needed to back up their editorial presumptions. From talking with Joe I knew Lang was old school, straight-down-the-middle editor. His approach was to start off by sending a journalist out with an open mind to learn on the ground what the story was, changing hypotheses as needed. Luckily the AsiaIntel owners — rich investors cheerfully covering substantial losses while trying to get the start-up on its feet — could afford the travel bills.
Bang-bang stories once had been my bread and butter. So any danger involved in Lang’s assignment wasn’t a serious deterrent; I was ready to go get the story — hoping that story would keep the insurance company from invoking the suicide clause.
I went to my room, called Lang and told him to count me in. He gave me a Beijing phone number for the tour booker, a South Korean woman who went by the name Barbara Lee. I phoned her and introduced myself as an American musician who had some free time.
“I had a cancellation on the tour leaving the day after tomorrow. Can you get here in time?” After the previous day’s news I was willing to bet she’d had more than one cancellation.
Letting her chatter on in her serviceable but heavily accented English, I quickly typed her as a power matron. “I lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years. You’ve come to the right place. I have high-level contacts in the DPRK.”
She mentioned Joe. “That man was such a troublemaker. I wish I never heard of him.”
She told me to fax her my details and documentation right away so she could get Pyongyang’s approval. I needed to reach Beijing by the following mid-afternoon to present my passport at the North Korean consulate there, meet the group and, after we’d received our visas the next morning, fly to Pyongyang for our four-night tour.
China permitted U.S. citizens to transit with no visa, but I needed to get some dollar and euro cash and run a couple of other errands. After I returned to the hotel, Evelyn and I went to keep our appointment in the U.S. Embassy consular section, whose duties included repatriating the remains of dead American civilians. The consular officer told her she could have the body shipped to Mississippi the following day. “We’ll give you a notebook that was found in one of your husband’s pockets.”
Being Joe, I figured, he must have filled up several notebooks by the time he was shot. What had happened to the others?
We went to the mortuary to confirm his identity. Still visible on his left palm was the inked inscription I’d seen, a C, a slightly smaller D and an even smaller S.
* * *
I figured I needed to avoid calling my prospective hosts’ attention to my part-Korean ancestry. Lang’s assumption about my blending in was off the mark. Arrests of people such as evangelist Kenneth Bae illustrated that the North Koreans paid careful attention to ethnic Koreans and were especially inclined to accuse us of spying. I double-checked my passport. The only hint was my middle name, Park, my mother’s maiden name. The North Korean spelling would have been Pak, but romanized in South Korean fashion it could just as well be an English name.
Six-foot-two and of medium build, I’d inherited a set of features thanks to which I didn’t stand out from members of the dominant race on either side of the Pacific. (Put aside the fact I felt sufficient difference to give me an outsider’s perspective toward both of them.) My nose was medium-sized, eyebrows dark and heavy, eyes double lidded. The high cheekbones and black hair could’ve come from a Cherokee ancestor on my father’s side.
The braided ponytail I was about to have sliced off in the hotel barbershop was hidden behind my neck in my passport photo. I hated to part with the braid; it worked with my stage get-up. But it had to go, along with my mustache. Not only the wire service people who’d been with me at the Z but also, I assumed, North Koreans stationed in twin two-hundred-foot watchtowers had captured the hirsute Heck with their cameras.
That passport photo dated back to a time when I’d been trying out a new look at the behest of a girlfriend. It showed me clean-shaven. The passport bore not a single stamp to identify me as a journalist. My credit line in the news business had always been Heck Davis, and that’s the name I’d been identified with on TV the previous day. The passport name Festus Park Davis wouldn’t give me away as being Heck.
Evelyn looked at me intently when I met her after my trip to the barbershop. Not only did she prefer the old me; now she was even more worried. “Don’t get killed.” It came out in a whisper.
“The North Koreans probably won’t know who I am. Much less will they want to hurt me.”
So far, so good — but in Beijing, Barbara Lee would turn out to be the tour-booking agent from hell.
Chapter 3: Journey to Pyongyang
At Incheon International Airport before checking in the next morning I found a facility where I could store my camera gear, laptop and phone for the duration of my trip so they wouldn’t give me away as a journalist.
In Beijing I went straight to the North Korean consulate, arriving just before the deadline for handing in my passport. From the consulate, my taxi got me through rush-hour traffic to the hotel with ten minutes remaining before the itinerary called for the group to leave for supper. Time enough to take my luggage up and wash my face, that’s what I thought. But a group of foreigners had already boarded a tour bus, whose motor was running. I suspected those were my tour companions.
Sure enough, a middle-aged Asian woman with a formidable prow of a bosom and a grimace on her round face was standing on the pavement by the bus’s open door. Having seen my faxed passport photo, Barbara Lee spotted me as I alighted from the cab. She placed her hands on her ample hips. “I can see you’re a troublemaker,” she complained, loudly enough for everybody on the bus to hear. “Probably another one of those journalists pretending to be a tourist like that one the other day. I bet you brought a fancy camera and a digital recorder, all that journalist equipment, didn’t you?”
I couldn’t get into a pissing match — too much was at stake. I needed to go to North Korea and she might be in a position to stop me.
“No, ma’am,” I replied with as much false humility as I could muster. Koreans, especially older ones, tend toward a hierarchical cast of mind. I figured addressing Barbara Lee as ma’am might give her face and soothe her. “Here’s my camera.” I produced from my bag a fifteen-dollar, bottom-of-the-line, disposable model I’d bought in Seoul to complete my disguise. “I don’t have any other equipment, except these.” I reached in my jacket pockets and pulled out my traveling selection of Marine Band harmonicas in various keys, a double handful of them. “Like I said on the phone, I’m a musician.”
“You claim to be a musician and what you play are those ridiculous toys?”
“I also play guitar, but my National Reso-Phonic is heavy. I left that behind since I came for sightseeing, not performing. These little harps here, well, I brought them along just to pass the time in case we get in a traffic jam.”
I didn’t quite shuffle as I was saying all that but, with downcast eyes, I assumed as respectful and subordinate a stance as I could manage. My parents had named me after the biblical governor of Judea. However, when I was growing up everybody was watching Gunsmoke on TV and associated the name Festus with Marshal Matt Dillon’s slow-talking, illiterate deputy. It was Joe’s nicknaming me Heck that saved me from always having to live down that image.
Barbara Lee showed no sign of being persuaded. “Troublemakers come up with such pitiful stories. That Joseph Hammond applied saying he was on the faculty of the University of Hard Knocks. After he got shot, the TV news called him a journalist. I did an Internet search. There is no University of Hard Knocks!” She huffed some more before telling me to get on the bus. I felt the eyes of my fellow tourists as we drove off through a cloud of air pollution so dark I could barely make out the newly constructed skyscrapers we were passing.
At the introductory banquet in a vast restaurant decorated with red paper lanterns and specializing in Peking duck, I made sure to sit as far away from Barbara Lee as I could get. Some fellow “tourists” seated on either side of me quickly let me know that the tour booker might just as well have singled them out for suspicious outbursts. Both were journalists, one from Germany and the other from Australia — and they had spent enough time with the rest of the bunch before my arrival to determine that, in fact, the majority of our group were journalists thinly disguised as consultants, professors, managers, clerks, whatever.
It was clear the pair assumed I was, indeed, one of them; but if I wanted to keep pretending otherwise, even with them, they were OK with that.
“I wouldn’t have taken the risk of fudging my credentials if I hadn’t heard it was expected,” the Australian woman told me.
“What I heard was that the North Koreans were seriously short of foreign currency, and a large percentage of the foreigners who were willing to pay their exorbitant rates for tours were journalists. Apparently a few years ago someone made the decision to allow people like us to visit, under conditions that let the minders keep control.
“They don’t want to organize real press tours more often than they have to — because then they would have to answer tough questions, respond to complaints about the itinerary, perhaps even tell us the truth on occasion. They just want to herd a docile crowd around to the usual sights. So they’ve hit on a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”
“How does it work?”
“We pretend to be ordinary tourists. If one of us starts making difficult demands, they can say, ‘Look, you’re here as a tourist. You told us you were a professor, not a journalist. Don’t rock the boat. If you want to take a press tour later and set up special interviews, you can apply to such and such agency. Perhaps you will be accepted. On this tour, you’re to go where we take you.’ ”
“That’s it? Nobody gets expelled?”
“Normally, no. They don’t want to drive away lucrative business. This way the North Koreans get their hard currency. We get to see at least the surface of a country that not many other people visit. Everyone is happy.”
The German added: “I heard those rules of the game from an academic who recruits Western tour participants on commission. He sent me the brochure for this trip knowing what I do for a living, and he coached me on how to apply so that the North Koreans would have deniability — they can blame me in case I complain too loudly about how little we get to see.”
“See no evil . . .”
“Yes. He told me Barbara Lee knew the rules as well as he did. We’re not trying terribly hard to pretend not to be journalists, and she’s seen enough of us today to have figured out pretty much who is and who isn’t. Maybe she had caught some grief from the North Korean authorities for accepting Hammond on her tour. Even so, I don’t know why she would pick you to dump on, instead of any of the rest of us.”
I thanked my table mates for the explanation and let the matter lie. I really was what I’d said I was, I told myself. I’d left journalism. Taking this assignment was just one brief step backward. I would stick to my story and hope to be believed.
Fortunately, the hyper-suspicious Barbara Lee wasn’t going to Pyongyang with us. Local guides from the tour agency she represented would take over there. Since I had no idea what to expect from them, though, simply knowing she’d be absent didn’t chase away an unaccustomed case of pre-assignment jitters. After all, Joe had died on one of their tours.
* * *
I’d heard all the jokes about the rattletrap vintage planes of the North Korean state airline, but the Air Koryo jetliner we boarded at Beijing Airport the next day was a brand new Antonov. I vaguely wondered where the country — supposedly chafing under strict international economic sanctions to punish it for its bad behavior — had found the money to trade up. Selling overpriced tours to disguised journalists couldn’t be bringing in anywhere near enough.
New as it was, the aircraft didn’t exactly provide a high-end travel experience. Many North Korean passengers sat atop mounds of Chinese goods they were importing. The fact that they couldn’t possibly fasten their seat belts didn’t get them kicked off the flight. Even those of us who used our seats only for sitting weren’t in the lap of luxury. All they brought us to snack on during the two-hour flight was hard candy. As if to compensate, the uniformed hostesses handed out piles of reading material. The newspapers and glossy magazines and pamphlets were all full of pictures of young ruler Kim Jong-un. Articles effusively praised him, his father and his grandparents.
The regime had built a gleaming new Pyongyang airport terminal building since my previous visit. Its similarity to modern airports elsewhere eliminated much of the feeling of otherness that a visitor in the past would have felt when disembarking at the old, tiny, bare-bones terminal. Still, despite my colleagues’ assurances the night before, I worried as I stood in line at immigration. Would they find my name on a watch list and send me packing — or, worse, arrest me for trying to enter on false pretenses?
My turn at the window came. The immigration agent barely glanced at my documents before waving me through to customs. There, officials confiscated phones, which almost all the group’s other members had brought along. Those went into a bag for return to their owners at the conclusion of our visit. My new journalist friends were upset, having understood that rules against bringing phones in had been relaxed. Apparently, the regime had reversed itself again.
More than half of the group members had brought laptops. They had to line up and wait to have those checked by a pair of specialists. I’d left mine behind on the theory that ordinary tourists wouldn’t typically take such machines along for short tours in a country where the Internet made the authorities nervous. It turned out, though, that the North Korean computer inspectors weren’t looking for journalists, especially, but for global positioning systems. I watched my traveling companions sympathetically as the officials confiscated, for the duration of the tour, every computer with built-in GPS — apparently for the protection of any sensitive areas we might pass.
They also took a Leica with every imaginable lens from a Brit shooter. The rest of the journalists had been careful to bring nothing better than high-end non-professional video or still cameras, all of which made the cut. I felt for the Leica guy and briefly thought of offering him my disposable. That would’ve been of almost zero use to a pro, though. Anyhow, I figured he would manage to borrow something better from somebody else in the group or find what he needed in a Pyongyang store carrying imports.
I scooped my harmonicas from my pockets and put them on the table. A uniformed contraband sleuth examined them at some length. I had to suppress a snort of laughter. Not wanting his inspection to reach the point of pulling them apart in search of nonexistent electronic components, I picked up one of the harps and blew a few bars of “Oh Susanna” — a tune way too chirpy to pose a cultural challenge. That drew smiles from a couple of North Koreans in dark civilian clothes, part of a group of four who evidently were waiting for us to complete the formalities. Recognizing the guides who’d led Joe’s fatal tour, I felt a chill.
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
Next installment: Part 2 – Pay High Tribute
About the Author: Growing up in the southern United States, Bradley K. Martin studied Asian history at Princeton University and went on to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand before starting his news-reporting career on The Charlotte Observer. The two-time Pulitzer nominee has been an Asia correspondent, bureau chief and/or editor for Asia Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Asian Financial Intelligence and Bloomberg News. Since 1979 he has made seven reporting trips to North Korea. He’s the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, which won the Asia-Pacific Special Book Prize – and which the New York Review of Books called “simply the best book ever written about North Korea.” His new novel Nuclear Blues, set in North Korea and conceived as a fiction sequel to his earlier nonfiction work, has won a 2018 Readers’ Favorite Book Award: the Bronze Medal for conspiracy thrillers. Keep up with him on his Facebook author page.
“Bradley Martin wrote the book on North Korea – literally. His 2006 look at the inner workings of the Kim dynasty, all 912 pages of it, remains an unequaled primer on the most isolated regime. For his Kim family follow-up, turning to fiction has a perverse logic. Political scientists, after all, have failed to explain, predict or translate what’s afoot in the Hermit Kingdom. The sprawling Central Intelligence Agency was just as shocked as investors in 2017 to find how much Kim’s nuclear program leaped from theoretical to operational. When basketballer Dennis Rodman knows more about Kim than Donald Trump’s cabinet does, you might as well turn to a work of fiction. Martin’s vivid read, centering on a journalist trying to get the real story in Pyongyang, has all the makings of a great Coen brothers film.” – William Pesek, LiveMint