Bradley K. Martin presents his prizewinning thriller Nuclear Blues. Photo: Great Leader Books

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. Now read Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4.

Chapter 10: In the Boondocks

In the light of a sunny and crisp early autumn day, about to cross into North Korea, I felt slightly less apprehensive. Reverend Bob seemed to have the ear of the country’s authorities. I would keep my eyes open and, with luck, maybe I wouldn’t be in much danger on his cloistered campus.

In the hotel lobby Byon met me, bearing my visa — a separate document. As I knew from my previous trips, North Korea didn’t stamp visas into the passports of imperialists. We packed my bag and my guitar into a chauffeured van. The driver already had loaded a shipment of Chinese-made guitars, a couple of banjos, a mandolin and a gross of harmonicas, all ordered for the students at my request, but there was still room for more cargo. Byon gave me a look of distaste, but he did have the driver stop so I could stock up on bourbon.

As the senator had assured me, the border formalities presented no problems. We drove across the Friendship Bridge and headed east-northeast, soon leaving the built-up parts of Sinuiju behind. I didn’t say much, since the driver was North Korean and I figured there was a good chance he’d been assigned to spy on us. Thinking about that reminded me of Shin Mi-song, who was in my thoughts more than I liked.

The scenery was similar to what our tour group had encountered on our side trips outside Pyongyang: an odd patchwork pattern on the hills and mountains. The coloration of each geometric tract — they ranged from brown through yellow to deep green — apparently depended on what crop, or which weeds, had replaced the absent trees and when. These were nothing like the forested mountains I’d seen on the Chinese side of the border.

This mountainous terrain wasn’t rice country. Many of the farmers had planted potatoes. Harvest time would come soon, but the scrawny plants didn’t look promising. In each of the few settlements we passed, people sat, stood or moved in desultory fashion in the fields. Their work besides weeding seemed to consist of picking up stones and moving them to piles. There were few signs of mechanization — only the occasional truck or tractor. Some oxen but mostly people were doing the heavy work.

Although everyone looked poor, I didn’t see anyone in a posture suggesting late-stage starvation. Maybe starving people were inside, dying. That would make sense, especially assuming we were following the “sanitized” route that Father Paul had told me about.

Enormous characters on the mountainsides, in the Korean hangul writing system, spelled out political slogans. One, far off and visible for only a moment as we rounded a bend, said, “Long Live the Youth Commander!” That must have been an earlier title for Kim Jong-un before his father’s death. Maybe the sign, due to its distance from the capital and near-invisibility to passers-by, was far down on the regime’s priority list for updating.

The evidence was piling up that I’d made a mistake. Personal danger aside, I could hardly expect to learn anything about a sophisticated financial scheme while isolated in a remote part of the country that was noticeably poor even by North Korea’s abysmal standards.

We pressed on, moving higher into the mountains and seeing yet fewer signs of human habitation. I checked my watch when we saw one car go by. It was just under an hour before we encountered another. Then, as I wondered what we’d do in the event of a breakdown, sirens sounded, our driver pulled over and a motorcade of large, black European sedans with tinted windows passed us at high speed. It looked like a gangsters’ funeral procession.

We stopped for a fueling and lunch break. The gas station was a one-man operation: no billboards or logos, just a concrete-block hut and a pump. I might have missed seeing it if we hadn’t stopped there.

While the driver filled the tank, Byon and I chatted at a lone concrete picnic table. I asked why the North Korean mountains had been deforested. It had occurred to me that maybe timber sales could be a partial source of the money influx I’d seen evidenced in Pyongyang.

Byon disabused me of that notion. “Originally it was Kim Il-sung’s policy. North Korea had plenty of ore and coal and other raw materials but it didn’t have enough land fit for agriculture. The South was agriculturally rich, lacked mineral resources but decided to import them so it could build a manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Kim wanted the North to be self-sufficient all around; instead of importing food, he was always urging the people to expand farmland. They filled in swamps and tidal basins and started up the mountains, cutting the trees and burning them for fuel, planting crops to replace them. They were supposed to terrace as they went but most of the terraces were poorly built, too weak to last.”

The driver had started walking in our direction. Byon opened the lunch bag from the Renmin Hotel and began distributing the contents.

“The economy collapsed after the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe abandoned communism and stopped sending aid in the early nineteen nineties. People were desperate. They climbed still higher into the mountains, cutting even scraggly, thin trees for fuel and cultivating private plots on slopes as steep as sixty degrees. Rains came and washed the terraces and their contents down into the valleys, covering good farmland below with stones and clogging the rivers with silt, making the flooding far worse. It was a terrible mess and they still haven’t finished cleaning it up in some places.” Byon raised his arms in a gesture of dismay.

“Sounds like a self-inflicted wound.” I took a bite of my sandwich, processed cheese on hard white bread.

“The regime blames nature for the flood damage. It also blames the United States — for choking off the country’s economy so that people had to scrounge for food and fuel in the mountains. No one mentions the Great Leader’s policy that started it all.”

Is his policy still the regime’s policy?

“Current policy is to replant the forests, but as you can see there’s been almost no progress. Arbor Day, when everyone has to turn out to plant trees, used to be on April 6. For propaganda purposes, to make the date correspond to an event in the manufactured Kim family legend, they changed it starting in 1999 to March 2, when the ground in much of the country is still frozen. Of course, many trees, planted with great ceremony on that day, die and have to be replanted. And even if the seedlings are put in later, at the right time, transplants don’t grow for long before people cut them down, or at least tie their branches to the trunks so that the trees won’t block the sun from shining on the subsistence crops they’re planting.”

The driver rejoined us and scarfed down his sandwich. We ate our hard East Asian pears in silence before resuming the journey. I reflected on what I’d just learned. Eliminating one alternate notion of how the country’s leaders might be getting rich — exporting timber — brought me closer to understanding why they might resort to a nefarious financial scam. It could be pure desperation: They had to face the fact that their versions of conventional means of creating wealth weren’t working.

Around mid-afternoon, we pulled off the paved highway and drove for ten minutes or so over a rutted gravel road, following a rocky stream up into yet higher mountains. Finally, we came to a stop at a steel gate, around 10 feet high, that was surmounted by a modest sign painted in red and gold. In English only, the sign proclaimed that this was Posey Korea University.

Even though Father Paul had alerted me that the place was under tight security, I was surprised to find the gate guarded by armed, uniformed men. Looking off to either side I saw a chain-link fence, also around 10 feet high if you included the barbed wire at the top. Based on what I had come to know about North Korea I supposed the fence and gate were there to keep non-university people out and to keep us in.

* * *

First to greet me was the dean of faculty, a slender, fortyish woman from Kentucky named Sable Pugmire who wore corduroy pants and a cable-knit sweater. We walked past the classroom buildings and the labs and gym. All were of unpainted wood construction, nothing over two stories. It looked like a quickly erected military camp. There were no ivy-covered masonry buildings, much less ivory towers.

Sable led me toward the administration building, no fancier than the others. “Assuming everything continues to work out, we can worry about raising money to put up more permanent buildings later,” she said. The North Korean government had sent soldiers to build the structures —“although the Posey organization had to ship the lumber here from abroad.”

“I did notice the tree shortage.”

In her office, she filled me in on my teaching responsibilities. “All our classes should be conducted in English, but it’s good that you have Korean language ability. You can lead singing in Korean and help the students when they don’t understand something in English.” She pointed down the corridor. “Dr. Posey is busy but he’ll see you later in his office.”

She gave me a campus walking tour. The classroom building was two stories high with various one-story extensions. Next was the single-story library. “We’re so proud to have a full line of Christian books here along with a complete collection of the Western classics.”

The library looked small to me but I gave her an encouraging nod.

She stopped to show me the dining hall, which backed up on a large vegetable garden. “Supper is at six. Please be on time. Dr. Posey is a stickler for saying grace with everyone present.”

“He hasn’t changed.”

We peeked into the kitchen. The staff members were preparing supper. Two of the cooks, tears streaming down their faces, were chopping onions. My eyes fell on a worker pouring rice out of a big sack that hung from the ceiling by a hook. The action brought back a memory of Fatback. We’d finished off a bottle of whiskey in his Mississippi kitchen. I had finally gotten around to telling him I’d accepted a war photography assignment.

As I’d anticipated, Fatback had shown even more disapproval than Mama had. “I done put too much into teachin’ you how to play guitar and harp for you to go gettin’ killed and make me feel like I done spent all that time on you for nothin’. You a musician, not a fighter.”

“I can take care of myself if I need to. Been doing it for years — ever since  Reverend Bob taught me boxing.”

“Never heard about that.”

“That was before I knew you. I was a high school freshman. A big bully of an upperclassman named Arnold took a dislike to me and gave me a cherry belly out behind the stadium.”

“You mean he held you down and beat the back of a toothbrush on your belly real fast, like he was a drummer, till that belly swoll up bright red?”

“Yeah, the sadist. Kept the toothbrush in his locker for just that purpose. Judging by the smell of his breath, he never used it on his teeth. Reverend Bob heard about it and just happened to have boxing gloves in his office. He took me out behind the church and taught me what I needed to know.”

“I s’pose the reverend taught you no hittin’ below the belt, gotta stick to them gentleman-like Marquess of Queensberry boxin’ rules.”

“He did, and it worked just fine. Back at school, the next time Arnold pulled out his toothbrush I gave him a bloody nose before some other upperclassmen pulled us apart. He didn’t bother me anymore. I’ve had more fistfights since then and won more than I lost.”

“Listen, Heck. You run into trouble in the real world, I want you to forget all about what that preacher told you ‘bout fightin’ fair. Say a man come after you with a knife. You got to use anything handy.”

Maybe I’d looked doubtful. Or maybe, regardless of my initial response, Fatback had wanted to show me, memorably, what his point was.

In one swift and fluid movement he’d grabbed our empty bottle by its neck, smashed the bottom on the stove and crouched, thrusting the jagged weapon out in front of him, moving way faster than prudent Mississippians normally permitted ourselves to do when the temperature in the shade was ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

Demonstrating on what was left of a fifty-pound sack of grits that hung from a hook, he’d instructed me: “Duck when he first come at you. Move in low. Stick it in hard above his pecker, far as you can shove it, and pull up with both hands. Turn that edge so you gouge along one side of his rib cage. Turn it again when you get to the top. Then slice down the other side.”

A stream of grits had flowed out through the foot-wide flap he’d made as I watched them pile high on the floor.

“Maybe you do time, Heck, but you still alive.”

The yakuza hit men had cleared up any doubts I might have had about the value of Fatback’s advice. I wondered if they were still watching my Tokyo and mountain places.

* * *

Finally, Sable and I reached a faculty apartment building, another unpainted wood-frame structure — this one with a roofed, open-air passageway along one side. There Sable assigned me my quarters: a sitting room, which would also serve as my office, and a bedroom with attached bath.

“How about Internet and telephone? I don’t see any facilities here. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any in your office, either.”

“Those aren’t available except to Dr. Posey. The North Koreans insisted on that. For what they call security reasons, the rest of us are limited to snail mail. DPRK postage stamps are available at the campus snack stand — and some of them are stunningly beautiful. Your family and friends and any stamp collectors among your acquaintances will be happy to receive them. If there’s an emergency, we can arrange for you to use the electronic communications facilities in Dr. Posey’s office.”

When Sable left, I opened a bottle of bourbon, poured three fingers and drank it neat, shaking my head and mentally pointing one of those fingers at myself. Getting the story or image wasn’t the end of a news assignment. Whatever we got we had to file to our editors. Snail mail! That hadn’t been the journalist’s transmission choice since the nineteenth-century advent of the electrical telegraph and transoceanic cables. I’d brought my laptop this time, figuring that a professor’s having one shouldn’t arouse suspicion. Failing to check ahead on the availability of transmission facilities was the sort of mistake I’d never have made, no matter how short the notice, if the hitmen in the subway and at the lake hadn’t rattled me.

It had come to seem wildly improbable that I’d get the story I needed while confined in the rural cocoon of Posey Korea University. Still, if only for my safety, I’d need to do some more deep breathing, calm down and stop making mistakes. Meanwhile, at least I’d have a chance to try something new — teaching. Maybe that would prove interesting enough to keep the overall experience from driving me batty. Maybe I’d make some new friends. Maybe I would get the story, somehow.

When I went into the dining hall, with its rustic tables and benches, its unfinished wooden floor, walls and ceiling, it felt as if I were back at a Calvary Church youth retreat held in some backwoods Mississippi camp — except for the food, which proved to be an appetizing blend of Korean and American cuisines. To go with our meatloaf and fried chicken we had a choice of five kinds of kimchi, collard greens cooked with pork, broccoli with cream sauce, string beans, navy beans and mashed potatoes.

It was six sharp and I was the last to arrive. As soon as I plopped down in the seat Sable had saved for me, we all bowed our heads and Reverend Bob, up on the stage, said grace. “Lord, with the signs multiplying that your only begotten son will soon return to rule the earth for a thousand years, we give thanks that you have permitted us to gather in Christian fellowship here in formerly godless North Korea.” He stopped to cough. “We thank you for the food that we are about to eat and ask that you bless it to the nourishment of our earthly bodies.” He coughed again. “In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.”

Amens echoed around the room. As platters, bowls and utensils clattered, Sable introduced me to her husband, Ezra, and their three daughters. The oldest, Shirley, a brunette, looked about fourteen physically but seemed older because she had a permanently worried look on her scrubbed face and wore a long, shapeless granny dress over her sneakers. The other two, effervescent identical-twin blondes around eight years old, were named Goodness and Mercy.

“Ah,” I said. “Twenty third Psalm, sixth verse.”

Cocking their heads and pointing to each girl as her name was uttered, the twins delightedly spoke in unison: “Shirley, Goodness and Mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Sable and Ezra beamed. Shirley looked sullen, and I felt for her.

Sable taught biology and chemistry; Ezra, physics and math. Their teaching hours were staggered so they could take turns home-schooling their daughters. Back in Kentucky, they’d been involved with a museum, research institute and theme park devoted to promoting the accounts of creation set forth in the book of Genesis. So excited that they both talked at once, they told me all about the organization’s Australian founder. “Atheists, even the biggest names in secular science, are no match for Ken Ham,” Sable boasted.

A pale, thirty-something Caucasian man sitting nearby rolled his eyes. We introduced ourselves; he was Bartow Toombs, an English teacher from Savannah.

The Pugmires were still talking to me, waxing rhapsodic about Posey Korea University and the miraculous change in North Korean policy that had permitted them to witness for Jesus inside the country. They kept that up until Shirley interrupted with a whiney complaint. “There’s nothing to do here. Not even a store, much less a mall.” I figured she’d gladly leave this remote locale to return to Kentucky and dwell in the house of the Pugmires, if not forever then at least through high school.

Feeling there weren’t likely to be many promising topics for conversation between me and the Pugmire couple, I was relieved when Lindsey Harrold joined the conversation. A drawling, white-mustached Texan in his seventies or eighties who taught theology, Lindsey introduced himself by cracking a joke at Reverend Bob’s expense. “Bob might have chosen some other context than the End Times for giving thanks at your first meal with us, considering you probably felt already that you’d come to the end of the earth.”

I laughed, and Lindsey went on to assure me that things weren’t too bad at the university. There were movie nights, the little library had a decent selection of books and the students were enthusiastic.

Bartow Toombs looked up from his kimchi. “You always think the glass is half full, Lindsey.”

The meal ended. Reverend Bob came over to welcome me with a big grin and a hug. “You got here quick, Heck. That’s great. I’m headed off first thing in the morning on a trip to the States, but come by my office around eight tonight and we can have a chat. Sable will get you squared away in the meantime.”

Sable took me over to another table and introduced me to several students. Male and female students alike wore jeans. Sable told me in an aside that the Christian head of a South Korean department store chain had donated the clothing. The students looked like their counterparts anywhere else in northeastern Asia, except for their generally small stature and what I took to be stress lines around the eyes and mouths of many of them.

The student body president, who had topped his jeans with a white dress shirt, looked to be considerably older than a traditional college student — maybe thirty-five. He told me there was a long waiting list for my class.

Walking out with me, Sable advised me the campus was a restricted area. We were not to venture off the main paths or into the mountains without security people escorting us. “This is for our own protection. The DPRK is not accustomed to religious people exercising their faith openly, and there are fears it could cause problems.” She stopped at a security post near my building and introduced me to the unsmiling plainclothes cops who manned it.

By the time I got to Reverend Bob’s office, I’d decided to level with him. My youthful experiences had taught me that a frank chat with him could produce ideas that might not have occurred to me. Even if the problem I’d run into this time turned out to be too far from his own experience for him to think of anything helpful, it was worth a try. I had nothing to lose.

“You probably saved my life inviting me over here,” I told him. “I respect you too much not to be honest about this. I have to confess: the prospect of teaching was not the only reason I came. A couple of really bad things happened. First, a man tried to push me in front of a train in the Tokyo subway the day before I got your email.”

“Tried to kill you?! Why? Did they catch him?”

“He ended up being the one run over by the train. Turned out to be Korean-Japanese, a gangster. I left Tokyo for my safety, but another gangster came after me the next morning. He got sidetracked before he could find me, but he was close.” I didn’t want to mention the second yakuza’s fatal fight with the mama bear — it was so preposterous I had trouble believing it myself.

“But why? What in the world could make you a target for Japanese gangsters?”

“I figured it was because I’d been sniffing around trying to scope out what happened to Joe. I told you in Pyongyang I suspected his death was related to some sort of complicated financial scheme run by persons unknown. I got a further clue suggesting that scenario from reading Joe’s notebooks, which some kind soul provided me. Am I right that he gave them to you for safekeeping when he met you in the lobby his last morning in Pyongyang? And then you made sure I got them?”

Reverend Bob smiled and puffed on his after-dinner Havana. “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” He coughed, then added, “That’s always been one of Daddy’s favorite hymns.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of teaching here, but I also thought if I came over to your campus I could pursue the story and maybe find out who wants to kill me. Now that I’ve arrived, I’m afraid that’s impossible up here, so far from Pyongyang and any other settlement of more than a few hundred people. I hadn’t realized just how remote your campus is. So I’m pretty much at a loss about what to do.”

“You did the right thing to come. The authorities wouldn’t want to let anything happen here that would discourage our project, and I’m sure they know letting someone attack an American teacher would do just that, in a big way. They keep extremely tight control, as I’m sure you realized during your time as a tourist. Besides being safe here, who knows? Maybe you’ll get a sudden insight that leads you to a big story. You know, Zack Nodding thinks our friend Joe may have turned greedy.”

I didn’t say anything.

He took a puff on his Havana and coughed. “Zack mentioned a case to me that he thought might be similar to Joe’s, even sent me copies of some old news stories to show you. Let’s see where I put those.” He rummaged in the top drawer of his desk until he found some printouts. “They’re about a young reporter whose job in the nineteen eighties was writing the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Heard on the Street’ financial gossip column. When he got some information likely to ‘move the market,’ as they say in the financial world, he passed it along to broker friends who capitalized on it before the column got into print. Do you know the name R. Foster Winans?”

“Yeah. I heard about him more than once from none other than Joe, who used to work for the Journal and despised Winans, as does every other journalist who ever worked there.”

“I just read these clippings quickly, but Zack wonders if Joe could have been at least thinking about doing something similar.”

“I don’t see any logic in that, and I can’t picture Joe involved in an insider trading scheme even if he was desperate. He was an honest reporter.” I couldn’t fight the anger that was making my face flush. “I’m sure Zack knows finance and all that, but . . .” I stopped myself from saying more.

“I gather you two haven’t exactly hit it off. You’re different types. You’re like John Hyon — a pleaser, generally easygoing, considerate and well liked. Zack, on the other hand, tends to rub people the wrong way. He doesn’t always know how to act, although his heart’s in the right place. Let me share with you some of the circumstances behind that and maybe you can find it in your own heart to think better of him.”

I nodded.

He coughed before continuing. “We encourage homeschooling, but it has to be done right. Zack’s mother homeschooled him all the way from kindergarten through high school. He was an only child. He was a baby when his father abandoned them. The boy would have benefited from more and earlier social interaction with other children. He’s a bit intense, sometimes lacking in sweetness of spirit. But Zack loves the Lord — he’s one of a remarkable few among the faithful who’ve never shown any signs of doubt. And he does know finance, inside and out. I depend on him as my right hand in practical matters.”

I considered what he’d said. Maybe I’d been too hard on Zack. Maybe he’d had bad experiences with journalists and was ready to imagine the worst about Joe — although for the life of me I couldn’t visualize how the scheme, as Zack imagined it, might work. Insider trading based on what information? Oh, well.

* * *

Back in my apartment, what really stuck with me from the conversation was Reverend Bob’s description of me as a “pleaser.” The word stung. It was an acceptable description of an entertainer, but not of a newsman. Even while floating in a sea of brotherly love at Posey Korea University, watched over by a guardian angel whose initials were RB, I needed to keep my body in shape, my instincts and technique sharp.

I pondered that as I fell asleep. The next morning I awoke early. In sweats and running shoes I went out to the security post. “It’s my custom to run in the morning, for my health,” I said in Korean. “You’re welcome to come along.”

One of the security guys took me up on it. About my age but a smoker and not terribly healthy looking, he wore a business suit and necktie and vinyl dress shoes. We ran along the campus trails back and forth, the agent huffing and puffing, until he got a blister and dropped off at his post saying I could continue alone.

I considered the effort a success: In case I should ever need it, I now had some latitude to roam around a bit without the cops bothering me.

When I entered the dining hall that morning Reverend Bob was there, but only for long enough to say grace. Carrying breakfast in a paper box, he made a hasty departure to begin his journey.

I was determined not to disappoint him. I’d throw myself into teaching. Remembering what the student body president had said about the waiting list, I told Sable I’d be happy to teach as many hours as it took to permit all comers to enroll.

“Thank you!” she said with a big smile. “’The hand of the diligent will rule.’ ”

“Proverbs 12:24, English Standard Version. Well, there’s also good advice for a newly minted professor in the second chapter of Titus: ‘Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity and sound speech that cannot be condemned.’ ”

“You certainly know your Bible.” Sable seemed to have developed a new respect for me.

We agreed I’d teach instrumental music in small weekly sections so I could work closely with the students. I’d also bring them together in larger groups, for choral music. Early in each week, I’d hold one session comprising all of the students to prepare choral and instrumental numbers for performance.

On the first day, I walked into the campus’s auditorium — the space also used for Sunday services. Rustic like all the other buildings but theater-like with its rows of seats slanting up from the stage, it was packed with students. Evidently, there was a lot of interest in music. We’d need to order more instruments once they got close to the point where they were ready to perform en masse.

At the lectern, I proved to be just as much of a ham — OK, a pleaser — as I was on stage. I told them my story, mentioning that my own Korean mother and grandmother, like many of my listeners and their families, had been refugees. I described my upbringing in Mississippi, a place they’d never heard of, and how on Sundays I would spend up to seven hours at Calvary Church — I’d needed that much time to attend morning and evening Bible study sessions and worship services plus choir practice, youth council meeting and the teen social that capped off the day. I told them how each Saturday, at the local Korean church, morning language classes had given way to afternoon games and sports with the children of Korean couples who’d moved into the area.

Part of my role was to help the students learn English. Still, I didn’t want to push them too far, too fast. I spoke alternately in English and Korean, translating English terms into Korean for them. I found that I also had to translate modern South Korean terms that I’d grown up using into more basic Korean to make myself understood. The Northern and Southern vocabularies had diverged considerably since the 1945 division of the country.

Much of the substance of what I had to say was new to the students. I told them that first day how I had developed the habit of attending African-American churches that honored the traditions of spirituals and gospel music. Some students had never met a black person and none had any idea what the term African-American meant. But when I explained the background of slavery, their eyes signaled recognition of the subject. North Korean propaganda had zeroed in on whatever was disgraceful in American history.

Explaining how the slaves had expressed their pain and longing in spirituals, I began singing slow and soft:

Nobody knows

The trouble I’ve seen,

Nobody knows

My sorrow . . .

I sped up the tempo and raised the volume

Sometimes I’m up.

Sometimes I’m down.

Oh, yes, Lord.

. . . and then sang softly again:

Sometimes I’m almost

Down to the ground.

Oh, yes, Lord.

After that sank in, I foolishly tried to lighten up the session. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of foot washing Baptists. I became a foot-stomping Baptist.” Only a couple of the students — who had been influenced by Pentecostal missionaries in China — knew about the ritual of foot washing. I let them explain. Then I demonstrated foot stomping while I played some appropriate music. Finally, I told them that “foot stomping Baptist” was my joking play on “foot-washing Baptist.” None of them laughed.

I told them about bluesmen I had met and learned from. If the students had heard of the blues they might consider the genre strictly secular, I said — and I knew Posey Korea University was an explicitly Christian institution. But as Fatback Hawkins had told me, “You can’t sing the blues unless you been to church.”

The traditions were all tied up together, I told them. I launched into a rendition of Son House’s “Preachin’ Blues,” a sinner’s lament about how booze and women have kept him from realizing his ambition of becoming a preacher so he won’t need to work for a living.

When most of their expressions showed they had not the foggiest notion of what on earth I was going on about, I decided to shift to more orthodox examples. First I sang the spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” I pointed out that the biblical exodus and the freeing of African-American slaves offered parallels to the students’ own travails as they wandered between two countries in search of a promised land that they might now think was Posey Korea University:

Go down, Moses,

Way, way down in Egypt’s land.

Tell ol’

Pharaoh:

Let my people go.

They started to get it. Pretty soon they were clapping and swaying and tapping — or even stomping — their feet.

Then I gave them a gospel song from the first third of the twentieth century:

Jesus on the main line,

Tell him what you want.

Just call him up and tell him

What you want.

They liked the beat but didn’t understand the lyrics. The reference, I told them, was to the then-newly invented telephone and the wiring that connected users to one another. Discussion revealed that a landline phone never had been a fixture in the typical North Korean home. But nearly all the students who’d been in China had used mobile phones.

* * *

I asked for volunteers to tell their own stories. Although it had seemed the class was already starting to click as a group, only a couple of hands went up. When the student body president stood and in under a minute gave us the CliffsNotes version of his life, I sensed that more than shyness was involved in their reticence. I could see how he and probably most of the others had been conditioned to hold things in, for fear of arousing suspicion. They probably figured the class included at least one spy assigned to remember or even record any remarks that might be construed as anti-regime. Who was I to say that wasn’t the case?

Anyhow, looking at my watch I saw that my time was about up. We’d made a decent start.

“You’ve heard today,” I said, “how some great music came out of people’s hard lives. In this class, I want to hear you make stand-up music out of your memories of low-down times.”

* * *

I convened the first of many guitar sections the following Monday. Only one of the three students showed signs of real talent, but I assured them they all could learn to play the instrument if they’d practice.

At the end of that class Pak, the student I’d spotted as a natural, stayed behind for a chat in the hallway where I was sending the other students off. “My father thinks we’re related,” Pak said in Korean. “His family was from Kaesong. I passed along what you told us about your missing grandfather and uncle who didn’t make it to the South. He believes he’s your first cousin.”

“Wow! Wouldn’t that be something? I was in Kaesong just the other day. Wondered if any of the family might still live there.”

“My grandfather left there soon after the war. With Kaesong part of the North, communist officials banned people suspected of disloyalty from living that close to the border. They kicked tens of thousands of people like my grandfather out of Kaesong and sent members of the ‘loyal’ class from other parts of the country to take their places as new residents. They banished my grandfather to a mine in the mountains of North Hamgyong province. That’s where my father was born.”

“Where is your family now?” I envisioned them still hiding in China, or imprisoned in a North Korean camp. If so, though, how would they stay in touch with young Pak?

“I’m not supposed to talk about it. Perhaps later I can. Please don’t mention what I’ve said.”

“All right. I do hope to meet him.”

Maybe I was in the right place after all, even if I was no closer to unraveling the Joe Hammond mystery. Nobody had tried to kill me since I’d arrived. I was already developing a real affection for my students, along with deeper concern about the country they were introducing to me. And now came this news. I’d grown up knowing a lot of cousins on my father’s side but I’d missed having any on my mother’s side. If it turned out that Pak’s father was really my cousin, that would go a long way toward justifying the bumps in my road to Posey Korea University. And as a bonus, that dining hall food was excellent. If I weren’t running every morning I’d be putting on weight for sure.

Chapter 11: Use Anything Handy

Byon drove up from Dandong with a new student, a young woman named Yu. She joined a harmonica class section. I recognized her as the petite waitress-musician who’d performed on kayagum and harp the night I visited Arirang.

I didn’t think it showed me up as wildly paranoid to suspect she was a spy sent by Shin Mi-song — either to finish, by herself, or to help someone else finish the job the yakuza had botched. I asked her to stay behind after class. “Welcome, Ms. Yu. It’s an honor to have one of Arirang’s fine musicians join us. What brings you to Posey University?”

Her smile was half the size of her face and genuine enough in appearance — but people could be trained to smile sincerely before pulling the trigger.

“I often waited on Mr. Byon. I told him my family had been Christians and I wanted to study here.”

“How did your assistant manager, Ms. Kim, feel about losing one of her stars?”

“She has been away, traveling.”

I couldn’t read Ms. Yu with any certainty, but figured there was nothing to stop even a pint-sized cheerleader type from becoming an assassin given all the killing methods that had been devised.

“Well, no doubt you’ll be a fine addition to the campus. Don’t forget to practice bending the notes the way I showed you today, to get that good blues sound. You’re making fine progress already. I have a feeling you’re going to master the harmonica quickly and move on to add, say, the banjo.”

* * *

Although Sable Pugmire was always pleasant, and had been even more so since my offer to take on a heavy teaching load, I hadn’t gone out of my way to spend time with her. For one thing, I didn’t want to get into a discussion of the propaganda leaflets promoting young-earth creationism that kept appearing in my mailbox. That day, after I returned from the classroom to my apartment-office, Sable paid me a visit. She told me I had a summons to take some students and perform for someone “very high up.”

“We’ve only had the classes going for a couple of weeks.”

“I know, but we have no choice. When I say very high up, I mean really, really high up.”

“Like who? The county sheriff?” I remembered that cavalcade of black cars that had passed us on the road coming up. “The local mafia boss?”

“Even higher. For security reasons, I’m not supposed to tell you now. It’s set for Saturday evening. You’ll be performing near the university.”

It was going to be a severe test of my teaching ability to prepare a small ensemble, made up of students with musical training or experience plus Pak and a couple of other beginners who were naturally gifted. I wondered what else might await me. Was this a plot to get me out of the campus grounds and into a place where it would be convenient to kill me? Did that explain the timing of Yu’s arrival? Should I fear the personage we would be performing for?

On the other hand, I reasoned, there might be something in this for me — and Joe, and Evelyn. If someone in this remote region possessed such stature or power that he or she must go unnamed for security reasons, by keeping my eyes and ears open maybe I could, after all, learn something that would help me get the story I was after.

* * *

On Saturday evening the seven students and I packed ourselves into the university van. We rode out onto the highway and headed north briefly before the driver turned through a checkpoint onto an immaculate, smoothly paved road. In another minute we came to a high-walled compound guarded by a conspicuously large contingent of armed security men. Tall, clad in military uniforms, they stood stiff as wax figures. Inside the gate was a lush garden in which the abundant maples showed gloriously red and gold. We crossed a railroad spur and saw, to our right, what appeared to be a one-room passenger station. The garden opened up into a lawn, cropped close like a golf green, that surrounded a spread-out, three-story, white masonry mansion of basically utilitarian Western architecture. A chunky fringe of traditional Korean tiled roof surrounded a flat heliport where several camouflage-painted helicopters were parked. The whole effect was of graceless opulence backed by unlimited power and money. If the owner of this place meant me harm, I had a lot to worry about.

An attendant ushered us into a high-ceilinged anteroom decorated with a patterned beige Chinese carpet and a giant painting of Kim the First as a young warrior on horseback. On a table awaiting us were egg sandwiches, fruit — more of those hard pears, which were in season, but in this case of exceptionally good quality — and bottled water and soft drinks. A waiter in a white jacket poured me — and me alone — a stiff drink from a bottle of JW Blue.

Through the doors that led to the performance venue, we could hear a band doing a decent imitation of South Korean K-pop. The finale after twenty minutes was “Gangnam Style,” which I’d heard was banned in the North as decadent “puppet” music. Someone here was above the rules.

We entered the ballroom where we were to perform, an imposingly large, centrally heated space with crystal chandeliers dangling from a ceiling even higher than the one in the anteroom. There we saw the same chubby young fellow who had hosted Shin Mi-song and me in the Number One Room at that Pyongyang nightclub. I could hear the wide-eyed students closest to me sucking in their breath as they recognized him.

His costume validated our decision to wear casual clothes for the performance. Diamond stud in his earlobe, his hair spiked just as when I’d met him in Pyongyang, he was in jeans with no shirt but only a leather vest so as to show off elaborate yakuza-style tattoos — real or fake, I couldn’t tell — that covered his left shoulder and arm.

He was seated in the centermost of a row of upholstered chairs featuring  well provisioned built-in cup-holders and snack trays. Beside him sat a round-faced man in his sixties or seventies who was sporting a plaid flannel shirt. A bevy of gorgeous, mini-skirted young women flanked them to fill out the front row. The people behind them on non-upholstered chairs looked more businesslike, some in military uniforms, others in business suits, only one wearing people’s garb. Regardless of costume, several were armed. The leather vest was too roomily cut for me to tell whether our host was carrying.

The VIP spoke to me in English. “I heard from Comrade Mi-song you returned to my country. Welcome back, Mr. Davis.”

What followed were by no means my finest moments on stage. The youngsters and I performed with gusto, and I was surprised how well they’d done, but there hadn’t been time to prepare enough pieces. Too soon, we ran out of material. When we took our bows in hopes of leaving quickly, our host — mimicked by his minions — raised shouts of “Encore!”

Yu, a fast learner as I’d expected, had put in plenty of time practicing harmonica. During the encore, I found I could rely on her musically as she accompanied me on a few more numbers that otherwise would have been solos.

Not a show of shows, but our host seemed satisfied. My guess was that not too many foreign artists trekked up to his mountain villa for command performances. He had his entourage applaud long and hard. Then, standing, he thanked me and said he hoped we’d return and perform again. “I like oldies. Next time do some Doors and Jimi Hendrix, then send students home, stay here to party, enjoy karaoke and women.”

* * *

On the ride back to campus I pondered an urgent issue. My VIP host — who I now realized was the Respected Marshal himself — seemed to welcome my presence in the country. Hell, if I understood him correctly he was suggesting I take over from retired basketball star Dennis Rodman as his American drinking buddy.

Add the fact that Ms. Shin was the one who’d given Kim the word that I’d returned, apparently in non-alarmist terms. Did they welcome me to North Korea because I’d be easier to kill there? Or was it someone else who’d wanted me dead? In either case, I was relieved to find myself still among the living when we reached the university gate.

They say nothing’s darker than a North Korean night, and there was no light on the walkway in front of my apartment. The bulb had burned out, I figured. The apartment door was slightly ajar. Relieved at having made it this far into the night without meeting an assassin, I was ready — too ready — to assume that this could be simply a matter of a cleaning person having neglected to lock up. Propping my guitar against the outside wall, I pushed the door open, took one step in — and saw the thin stream of a penlight making a glow line in the corner of the sitting room. Someone seemed to be going through my desk.

Following my first — irrational — impulse, I flipped the switch for the overhead light. I should have turned and run instead. The light didn’t come on. The intruder turned off the penlight and quickly, without a sound, moved between me and the doorway. By the dim light filtering through the walkway from a gibbous moon, I could see the glint of a knife blade held by a short-haired intruder, not much smaller than myself. He was coming to kill me.

By feel, I grabbed the bottle standing on a bookcase next to me, which I knew still held a couple inches of bourbon. Fragrant droplets splashed on my face when I smashed it against the doorjamb. I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it was to waste good bourbon like that. I ducked low as he stabbed at me. His knife nicked my left ear. Then, starting with a two-handed upward thrust of the bottle, I gutted him.

It was over in no more than five seconds. As I listened to the dying screams and gasps of the man whose innards were spilling out, it hit me that I had killed a human being. I wanted to be sick.

The noise attracted the attention of everyone around, and the campus security detail soon arrived bearing large handguns and bright flashlights. The dead man on the floor turned out to be a North Korean named Min, a worker in the university dining hall. Min was a man we’d all known — or, rather, had thought we knew. He was the same worker I’d seen in the kitchen, on my first day, pouring rice out of a hanging sack.

Min had turned off the apartment’s electricity. A diagram showing the main power switch’s location was in his pocket. Nevertheless, looking at the expressions on the faces of Sable, Ezra and other neighbor-colleagues who got a whiff of the whiskey-soaked sitting-room floor, you’d have judged I was at fault.

Maybe the security men felt the same way. After bandaging my ear, they hauled me off to a small, bare room in their hut for interrogation, in Korean, that lasted the rest of the night. “Had you spoken personally with Min?” “How did you learn to kill a man with a bottle?” “Do you work for the American government?” Seated on a low stool under a large overhead light fixture, I stuck to my story: I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to break into my room, much less try to kill me.

* * *

Around daybreak, the interrogators left me alone with tea and bread on a dining hall tray. Famished, I gulped it down and wished for more. A half hour or so later, the man in charge re-entered and said, “You may go now. Someone important is waiting for you.”

I emerged from the detention cell and found Shin Mi-song, wearing her gray dress and a light coat that was open far enough for me to see that she’d switched to a different loyalty pin. Instead of the single portrait of Kim Il-sung she’d worn on duty both as a tour guide and as Arirang assistant manager, this was the new model, exclusively for higher-ups, that pictured all three Kim dynasty rulers.

“Let us go.”

I couldn’t read her face.

As we walked to a black Mercedes, she added, in a low, flat voice, “Do not speak until I dismiss the driver.”

We rode out of the campus gate, the uniformed guards waving us through without formalities. Ten minutes later I found myself re-entering the walled compound that had been the scene of the previous night’s performance. The driver took us to a corner of the garden, not to the mansion. He parked, then walked into a two-story concrete structure that appeared to be an office building. I guessed it might be the headquarters of the villa’s security operations.

Shin led the way as we walked to a glade. Looking around I saw that, in addition to maples, other mature trees, both hardwoods and evergreens, stood on the nicely landscaped property. Apparently deforestation stopped at the estate’s walls. Birds of various species were singing their morning refrains. She motioned me to a concrete bench. “You must be tired after your all-nighter.”

She was right. But sleep deprivation had intensified my feeling of helplessness. “Who are you, really?” I hoped my tone didn’t reveal how irritated I was to be at her mercy.

“What if I asked you that question?”

“You must know the answer already. It’s clear you’re a high-level spy.”

“That is only part of who I am. To make you understand the rest I shall have to tell you my story. First I must warn you that if you repeat this we are both toast, as your American phrase goes. Put another way, in the jargon of one of your professions, what I shall tell you is off the record.”

So she did know I was a newsman. I nodded. “Understood. Could you start by telling me your real name?”

“I have used several fake names, but Kim Mi-song and Shin Mi-song are both real. Please call me Mi-song. I had an adoptive father named Shin. My real father was Kim Il-sung, the late president.”

I guess my jaw dropped, which was not cool. “That orphan yarn you told me?”

“All of the Great Leader’s unofficial children tell the same story. There are scores of us. I am the youngest.”

Why was she telling me all this? Was she playing good cop to lull me into getting myself in worse trouble? Best to play along and see if the answers became apparent, I figured. “This is going to take some time for me to digest, and it raises a lot of other questions. Meanwhile, let’s go back to the subject of spying. I know you run a gin joint and guide foreign tourists but I assume those are just incidental to your main occupation. What variety of spook are you and how did you get where you are?”

“Those of us who are backdoor royalty, if we exhibit talent along those lines, are encouraged to volunteer for a sort of bastards’ honor guard. I have the talent. My career so far has been with a special, small intelligence organization set up by the party that focuses on rooting out any challenge to the leader’s one-man rule. We are noted for our surveillance skills and technology.”

“Are you the boss?”

“My official title is deputy director. The director is a general in his nineties who, as a teenager in the nineteen thirties, fought alongside my father against the Japanese colonialists. He is senile, a figurehead; that is the case with many other titular heads of organizations. Another deputy director is actually functioning and more senior than I; he currently runs the agency. The plan is to place me in charge eventually, but for now I carry out missions of my own devising — such as the restaurant, which I set up as a border listening post.”

“Are you the real boss at Arirang even though your title is assistant manager?”

“In terms of ultimate authority, yes. The person with the title of manager runs the day-to-day aspects of the restaurant business. I focus on how to make it all work as a source of intelligence.”

“Since you’re a spy, tell me why that kitchen worker Min came after me last night.”

“I do not know.”

“This doesn’t strike me as the sort of country where freelance criminals, without solid connections to the powers that be, would get very far.”

“I have not had time to check on Min’s connections. I traveled for much of the night to arrive ahead of anyone from another agency who might wish to take over your case from campus security. I avoid leaping to conclusions, preferring a methodical approach. But I imagine we are dealing here with the same people who tried to have you killed earlier, in Japan.”

“You know about that.”

“My agents were slow reporting to me on the two failed hits, but as soon as I heard about them I sent Ms. Yu to the campus to keep an eye on you.”

“So who tried to kill me in Japan? And why do you care what happens to me?”

“Let us go back and continue my own story. The important benefit from my combination of job and bloodline has been that my half-brother Jong-il placed trust in me and so does my nephew Jong-un, Jong-il’s third son and successor.”

“Jong-un being that dude I met for the second time last night — not just any VIP but Number One, the current grand wizard and exalted cyclops.”

She smiled. “You assume I would not know that those are titles in the Ku Klux Klan. But, yes, you met Kim Jong-un.”

She paused and looked at me, maybe reconsidering my own trustworthiness. Then she continued. “What neither Jong-il nor Jong-un managed to discover is that the country is more important to me than the Kim family. Along with some other people, I am determined to overthrow the regime and end the people’s misery.”

Again I was speechless, but not for long. “What does this have to do with getting me out of detention. What’s going on?”

“You are a journalist looking for a story and it is in my interest for you to get it. Kim Jong-un is gaming the international market in financial instruments called credit default swaps.”

Pleased to hear my suspicions confirmed, I relaxed a little.

“Didn’t know it went all the way to the top but we’d guessed about the CDS scam.”

“Then you have some idea how enormous it can be. I want Jong-un to fail. I want you to expose him.”

“If Kim’s the one behind it, I definitely want to expose him. I’ll be grateful for any help fleshing out what has to be a very complicated financial story.”

She nodded but didn’t speak, apparently sensing that I had more to say.

“But I’d be uncomfortable if you tried to enlist me directly in your plot, as much as I might privately sympathize with what you’re trying to do. Aside from questions of journalistic ethics, there are practical limitations: I have zero experience or competence as a spy or saboteur. That sort of thing is not in any of my job descriptions.”

“You are resourceful enough to deal with assassins.” Her eyes shone. “But you need not worry. I expected that you would wish to keep a separation between journalism and revolution. Politics is my department. News is yours.”

Somehow I didn’t need more time to think her offer over. My response was immediate, instinctive. “It’s a deal. Please don’t exaggerate my ability to scope out the CDS scheme further. I’m going to need a lot of help. In fact, I’ve already had help, from someone who understands finance, to learn what I know so far. Also, Joe left clues. He carried one when he died, and then I got another one when a friend gave me Joe’s notebooks.”

“I am that friend.”

“You? I thought it was Reverend Bob — Dr. Posey, the head of the university. How did you end up with the notebooks?”

“At Panmunjom I warned your friend Joe that his life was in danger. After the guards killed him I went back to the bus to secure the notebooks from his bag.”

“Thanks for rescuing them.”

“You are welcome. Knowing that Joe Hammond was a respected investigative reporter who had exposed the secret finances of another pariah state, I had hoped to enlist his help. I had assigned myself as one of the guides for his tour. When reporting to the party on what I was about to do, I had not mentioned him individually. My explanation had been that I needed to assess the security situation regarding tours that tacitly accepted reporters.”

Seeing her innocent expression, I could understand how she got away with such duplicity.

“As our tour bus arrived back at the hotel the evening before the group’s visit to Panmunjom, I was unsure whether there would be another chance to talk with him privately during the remaining day and a half of his stay. When he stepped off the bus I whispered in his ear: ‘Watch the CDS market.’ Already he had placed his notebook in his bag. He scribbled a note on the palm of his hand. He wanted to ask me some questions. I felt I had placed both of us in more than enough risk. I rushed off.”

“That scribbling on his palm was our first clue.”

“I had meant for him to wait and put it all together after he returned home. But I should have known from his earlier behavior on the tour that your friend was neither slow nor patient. Apparently, he worked out the basics of the scheme quickly and tried to learn more in his few remaining hours in the country. Somehow, by the time we were en route to Panmunjom the next morning, the wrong people had found out about his inquiries. He was marked for death.”

“I’m wondering how he could have been in danger when he had you, a top-level spy, on his side?”

“There are several intelligence agencies in this country and we all spy on one another. That is the way my father set it up. My brother and nephew continued the system, to give them the best possible chance of learning about even the tiniest germ of a plot against them. One agency put a hit on Joe Hammond. I have my own spies in that organization. I learned about it in a phone call I received during the group’s rest stop halfway to Pyongyang. I feared that he had virtually no chance to leave the country alive, but he deserved at least to know the situation.”

Her face conveyed something akin to grief as she recalled Joe’s plight. A softhearted spy? I wondered if she was doing an actress number on me. But according to her account, she had taken an enormous chance by leveling with Joe, and now she seemed to be risking even more by talking to me. I said nothing and let her continue.

“I was last to re-board the bus at the rest station, immediately after I had heard the news, and by then all the seats close to him were taken. My opportunity did not come until we exited the briefing hall at Panmunjom – after he argued with the army captain.”

“That’s when you warned him?”

“Yes, as we were about to board the bus for the short ride into the Joint Security Area. You saw what happened when we arrived at the JSA. He wasted no time before making his escape attempt.”

“Or ‘made a mess,’ as Kim Jong-un put it when we were in the nightclub.”

“Yes. After the killing, as a cover story to protect the sources who had sent word to me about his targeting, I reported to Jong-un that Joe seemed to have taken the argument too seriously ― imagining that the captain actually would shoot him. Neither Jong-un nor others who heard that version doubted it. The notion that we can frighten an American literally to death fits well with our ideology. Propaganda is so much a part of daily life that even the man at the top starts to believe it. When some of the journalists taking the same tour went home and wrote articles speculating that this was what had happened, it quickly became the official explanation here. The case was closed.”

“Looks like the killing didn’t hurt the captain’s career. He’s still on the job.”

“Things worked out well from the point of view of those who had put out the hit. Your friend’s run provided an unexpected opportunity to eliminate him without serious diplomatic complications. It would have been awkward to explain the mysterious death of a healthy American.”

“Well, that answers one of the big questions that brought me to your country in the first place. Joe didn’t commit suicide. But I guess you’re in no position to tell that to the life insurance company so his widow can collect on the policy.”

“Larger matters are at stake for me and my country. I am sorry.”

The way she said it made me feel she really was sorry.

“There’s something else I wonder about. How did you find out I am, or was, a journalist?”

“The first clue was that you booked the tour immediately after Joe Hammond was killed, when others were terrified and canceling. Barbara Lee was all right with that when you called her, but she started to worry later when she heard from Pyongyang. The Hammond incident had given ammunition to elements in the regime that were calling for a crackdown on journalists disguised as tourists. The tour company conveyed that to Barbara Lee and told her she had better be careful about whom she included. She feared she would lose her business.”

“Why didn’t she call me back and tell me to forget it?”

“I told her not to worry. But she still felt pressure from elsewhere, and you made her nervous.”

“If that’s what you call nervous I don’t care to see seriously disturbed, not to mention viciously deranged. I wanted to throttle Barbara Lee when your colleague Mr. Won said it was her recommendation that got me chosen to deliver the flowers at the statues.”

“You are right. Barbara Lee is a total pain even on her good days. I have a confession to make, though, and you will not like this.”

I looked at her quizzically. “Yeah?”

“It was my idea to ask you to present the flowers at the statues. I had a feeling that you would agree, to maintain your cover. I knew that the gesture would defuse some of the suspicion harbored by those who had wanted you barred from the tour. I am also the person who tipped off Central Television that an American would be doing the honors. I learned from one of my people that there was a noticeable uproar in your hotel room just at the moment when you would have seen yourself on the telly.”

“Arrrrggggghhhh!” I glared at her. “I damned well hope the results were up to your expectations.”

“They were. Without your televised tribute at the statues, most probably a second spy — not from my agency — would have been assigned to join your tour as a ‘guide.’ We never would have received clearance to take you into that nightclub, where you were able to meet Kim Jong-un and use your charm and wit to assuage his suspicions. Later, you might have been denied re-entry to the country in your new guise as a music professor. Even if you had managed to be re-admitted, Kim Jong-un would not have known you and thus would not have been available to serve as a character reference when you killed Min. So . . . do you forgive me?”

“Well, OK.” I felt sheepish. “Sounds reasonable.”

“To answer your original question, I compared the photo you sent to Barbara Lee with the television footage of you at the DMZ.” Mi-song pronounced it the British way, Dee Em Zed. “You called yourself Heck on the telly, and I did some research on just who Heck Davis was. Your earlier visa applications came up from our records. I learned you are of mixed ancestry and speak Korean. You were cuter with the braid and mustache.”

The smile dazzled me, as intended. My thoughts alternated between impulses. Should I run like hell — or grab her in a tight embrace, to shield her not only from the foggy, foggy dew, as the song goes, but also from the unimaginably powerful enemies she had decided to make?

“Why didn’t you tell me all this earlier — like when you saw me in Dandong before I came up here?”

“Although I knew that you were focused on completing your friend’s work, I failed to anticipate that you would manage to find your way back to this country so quickly. The report about the DPRK visa that Byon was arranging for you reached me on the very day you arrived at the border. I did not yet know about the assassination attempts in Japan. Besides, I felt unprepared to have this conversation with you. I had not determined precisely how to use the truth about the CDS scheme to bring Jong-un down. I still have not figured that out. But clearly, after what happened last night, there is no delaying matters further.”

A chilly wind had come up. My irritation had long since subsided but still I was mystified. “As you can imagine, I have more questions.”

She looked at her watch. “I must go into the villa now. Jong-un ought to have awakened. Before certain other people gain his ear I need to speak to him and give him a plausible explanation of why I drove up here and arranged for you to be released.”

“What’s your excuse?”

“I shall tell him that I had planned to come to this area on another matter. Since you had been his special guest at the villa, I knew he would want every courtesy provided. And, after all, you did surprise the burglar in your room; the killing was in self-defense.”

“That’s true. And we don’t even know whether Min went there specifically to kill me. Who knows what he was looking for with that penlight?”

“Both you and I have had a long night. I shall instruct my driver to return you to your campus. Clean up and have a nap while I do likewise. Later you will hear from me and we shall continue our conversation.”

I’d already yawned several times.

She rose to go. “You should not mention to anyone on campus that we have talked.”

I looked at my watch. “Pretty much everybody will be in church for much of the morning. When they get back they’ll figure I was just released from detention.”

She turned toward the villa, her jacket open. Focused as I thought I was on matters of life and death, I realized I was unable to avoid noticing how inviting her smiling lips were and how nicely she filled out that gray dress.

Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues

Now read: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

Next week:  Part 6 – Can’t Dance

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

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

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  1. Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your content seem to be running off the screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know. The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon. Kudos

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