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. Asia Times is pleased to publish the concluding installment of this gripping thriller, so timely it’s positively eerie. Full-length print and digital copies available. Now read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. and Part 9.
Chapter 22: Heaven’s Revenge
Following Yu’s advice, we wiped down our weapons, ammo clips and motorcycles for fingerprints and piled them on the ground. She and I added our uniforms to the pile.
The convoy forded the river to China. It was shallow at that point, the water coming only halfway up the wheels of the trucks and buses.
Wearing her black dress and, as I could see because her coat was open, no loyalty pin, my favorite spy stood on the other shore next to Father Paul. “I had a feeling that you two would manage to bring the entire crowd with you,” Mi-song said.
“What shall we do with them?”
“We had better get them away from the river bank before the Chinese authorities spot them. Ms. Yu, in the boot of my motorcar are some Chinese license plates. Father Paul will guide you to his rural retreat, via back roads. He will send for his discreet doctor friend to care for the wounded. The group can hold a funeral and hide out while we wait for the situation to calm down.” She turned my way. “Heck, you should come with me.”
As the Koreans changed the plates on their vehicles, I said my goodbyes. I assured Shin-il and his family that Mama and I would spare no effort to help them settle in Mississippi. Then I loaded my things into Mi-song’s Benz — noticing in the process that she, too, had switched to Chinese plates. I sat in the passenger seat. She drove away, fast.
“What’s the latest?”
“My sources say that when Jong-un tuned into CNN, KBS and BBC this morning, your story dominated the programming. One of his first moves was to have General Ri brought in, then taken to a field and killed with anti-aircraft fire.”
“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
“Jong-un also sent a squad of heavies to my office to arrest me, but I wasn’t there.”
“That explains these?” I pointed to a silver-gray wig and a pair of eyeglasses poking out of the center console.
“Yes, just in case of need. News broadcasts are still sketchy but the developing international story soon should become clearer. In Shenyang, where we are proceeding, I shall tap into secure communications to catch up further on domestic developments.”
“We must deliver you to the airport so that you can fly out of China.”
“I was kind of hoping for a hoedown in Arirang with full orchestral backup, but I guess you’re right. General Ri’s successor is sure to be on both our tails.”
“And the Chinese authorities will be more than curious when they realize that a major shootout involving an American has occurred just across the border.”
I yawned and she looked at me. “Since you have been straddling a motorcycle all night, my guess is that you will sleep within seconds. By all means, recline your seat and close your eyes while I play some lullabies.” She reached for the button on her sound system.
* * *
We reached the outskirts of Shenyang. First stop was a shop whose front part sold Chinese brushes and ink, for traditional painting and writing, and related paraphernalia including seals. Mi-song took me into the back. A stooped old man hovering over a workbench took my passport. He stamped it to indicate I’d re-entered the country normally at Dandong.
“This should be sufficient to get you out on the first flight tomorrow,” Mi-song said.
On her way to a safe house, where she would check on the latest Pyongyang developments, she dropped me at the U.S. Consulate-General. There I handed over the faculty roster that Sable had entrusted to me.
“At last we have a list,” said the consul-general. “The Posey organization’s spokesman issued a statement from old Johnny Posey. He was praying for members of the Posey Korea University community, including the students’ families and the faculty — and including his son Robert, although in no way could he condone attempts by mere humans to decide the timing of Christ’s return.”
“I’m glad that’s not the old man’s style.” I didn’t mention that Reverend Bob was dead. The government could find that out very soon, at the same time as AsiaIntel’s other readers, after I’d had a chance to file my follow-up story.
Without going into detail about how they’d escaped or where they were hiding, I urged that the United States fling open its gates for any of the Koreans who might want to immigrate, specifically including Shin-il’s family.
The consul-general called in an aide and instructed her to pass the word that Washington would need to gear up some fancy diplomacy to extract the Posey Korea University faculty. Then he turned back to me.
“You’ve reported the news story of the century. I congratulate you.”
Although I couldn’t think of anything graceful to say, that was OK. The consul-general, in a talkative mood, continued: “I’m afraid we’ll always have maniacs trying to blow up the world for reasons that make sense to them. The pessimist in me says that one day one of them will succeed. The optimist hopes people, from reasonable and resourceful private citizens like you all the way up to the president of the United States, will maintain vigilance and stop them every time.”
He took a sip of coffee and urged me to do likewise.
“Speaking of presidents,” he continued, “did you know that George W. Bush during his time in office was much attuned to Bible prophecy?”
“When he was trying to get the French to join him in Iraq in 2003 he did his best to explain to President Chirac that Satan was about to unleash Gog and Magog in the Middle East.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing he has different responsibilities now — his library, his painting.”
“Every four years, others like him apply for his old job. Every four years presidential hopefuls of that stripe appear at an evangelical convention in Iowa to answer questions put to them by a panel of preachers. The very first question always is, ‘What is your favorite passage in the Bible?’ At one of those affairs, three candidates all gave the same answer: ‘The time is at hand.’ ”
He sighed. “Fortunately, the time is at hand for my retirement from government service.”
I changed the subject, to a matter of more urgent personal interest. “I’ve been out of earshot of the news so don’t know much about what happened after the story broke.”
The consul-general picked up a stack of printouts from his desk. “Your story hit too late for the evening news on the east coast back home, but it led the late-night news. The repercussions began immediately. Our Navy seized the ship, after a shootout with the North Korean crewmen. Even if the missiles are faulty, they’re needed as evidence.”
“Did the government talk with Kim Song-chol, a.k.a. the Reverend John Hyon?”
“Feds had been watching him since they saw he was tight with the North Korean mission to the United Nations. Your story provided the ammunition needed to smash an espionage and propaganda network he had assembled. A federal judge got out of bed to issue warrants and FBI agents fanned out to arrest almost the whole ring. Unfortunately, the mysterious Hyon-Kim himself seems to have given them the slip.”
“What about the CDS scam?”
“Markets haven’t opened yet in Russia, Western Europe or the United States. But Goldberg Stanton headquarters in New York issued a statement saying it had frozen the North Korean investments at the order of U.S. regulators, pending an investigation into securities fraud and banking sanctions violations.”
The consul-general’s phone rang. He picked it up and listened, then spoke to the person on the line. “It’s my guess we have a little time before the dust settles in Pyongyang and the people in charge start thinking about what to do with a crowd of leftover aliens in their midst.”
Hanging up, he turned back to me. “Coming out of this we’ll probably see a strong push for tightening the regulatory rules for Wall Street banks generally.”
“I gather it’s been tried before.”
“Yes but your revelation that Nodding placed massive bets against Russia and other earlier targets of the scheme — and somehow managed to avoid arousing the suspicion of his bank’s compliance department — has made a difference. Senator Macon made a midnight announcement calling for tougher regulation of trading in credit default swaps. He apologized for having opposed earlier attempts to legislate that. Nodding had misled him, he said. Goldberg Stanton, along with other banks, had lobbied massively against major reform.”
Information overload and returning fatigue were starting to get to me, but the consul-general continued.
“Instant pundits on CNBC and Bloomberg TV wonder if Goldberg is doomed to go the way of the late lamented Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Our economic desk people in Washington are having a hard time figuring out how a hotshot like Nodding could have imagined he’d get away with such a harebrained scheme. I mean, North Korean missiles disguised as Russian missiles? Give me a break. For a kid like Kim Jong-un to go for it is one thing — that’s why the U.S. Constitution sets a minimum age of 35 to be sworn in as our Supreme Leader.” He pointed to a portrait on his office wall. “Not that the requirement guarantees we always have a mature incumbent, but at least we made the effort.”
“What does Nodding say?”
“He isn’t talking, apparently. But, for heaven’s sake, he’s a top-level financial professional with two university degrees and a world of experience.”
“Nodding believed what his lifelong spiritual guide believed. They both figured that, before anybody caught on, the scheme would spark the war that would bring Jesus back to earth. Then it wouldn’t matter if Goldberg Stanton went down the tube.”
Of course, the story would have explained that, but I thought reminding him couldn’t hurt. I shouldn’t expect people removed from the cultural context to grasp it immediately. Not everybody’s been raised the way I had.
Being so close to retirement, the consul-general may have figured he had little to lose from speaking frankly and ironically, rather than diplomatically. “I can’t help thinking of Wernher von Braun’s explanation of why he turned the Nazi rocketry advances over to the Americans,” he said as he tapped some search parameters into his computer. After a moment he read this aloud:
“We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”
* * *
Mi-song picked me up outside the consulate, so excited she had to struggle to catch her breath. She was in a hurry to get somewhere and shushed me when I asked her where. She wove her Benz into a tiny gap in the evening rush hour traffic. Finally, as she waited at a red light, she briefed me: “After Jong-un had watched the foreign telly news, his aides gave him an update that made him even more upset. The tremors from the Mount Paektu eruption had reached as far as Pyongyang. The shaking had cracked Kumsusan Palace, the mausoleum where the dead leaders’ bodies were lying in state.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I knew she didn’t like it that her dad had been stuffed and put on public display.
“Kim Jong-il’s body spilled out of its glass case and onto the mausoleum floor. Jong-un needed to settle on someone to blame for that horrible indignity. To make things far worse, his aides told him that at several places around the country security forces were fighting with armed citizens who retained enough traditional mindset to see in the eruption an evil omen. Perhaps the dynasty’s obsession with nuclear weapons had disturbed the sacred mountain.”
“Where did the rebels get their arms?”
“Most coal miners are military veterans, retained in the reserve forces. In several towns, the miners were so fed up by an accumulation of grievances that they emptied their local armories to join the struggle. Hearing this, Jong-un was boiling mad, raving mad. That was the context for the especially brutal method of executing General Ri.”
“I wonder where this is leading.”
“You’ll see, now.” Turning sharply she whipped into the parking lot of a Korean restaurant similar in décor to Arirang but larger. “General Ri’s agents in Northeast China run this establishment and his agency has its regional headquarters in another part of the building. We must be discreet, but we can watch DPRK television here.”
The establishment was standing-room-only, packed with portrait-pin-wearing North Koreans. The reason immediately became obvious: There on each television screen was the young leader, in people’s clothing, forelock hanging down, no earring or tattoo visible. Pacing like a caged animal around a luxurious office fitted with maps, screens and other command apparatus, his face mottled, he shrieked abuse at underlings. Behind him stood his unsmiling chief bodyguard, wearing the same striped tie I’d seen twice before.
Kim turned to a fiftyish general who was standing at attention in front of his desk. “The People’s Army must shoot all the protestors,” Kim ordered. “Shoot to kill.” The general saluted, wheeled and left the room.
“The security camera was running in his office,” Mi-song whispered in my ear. “This is footage from that camera, transmitted now by national television.”
The video showed a man in a business suit entering the office. When the camera focused on his round face I recognized Choe Ryong-hae, the only survivor among the designated regents.
“I’ll speak bluntly,” Choe said, wearing a stern expression as the two stood facing each other. “You have failed so miserably that if the protests cannot be put down, and if money cannot be found to replace what you have squandered, the top elite will be lucky to get out of the country alive with the clothes on our backs.”
“How dare you talk to the leader this way?” Kim demanded, looking as if he would explode. “You will die and I’m sending three generations of your family to our worst penal labor colony. I will assign them all — down to your infant grandchildren — to be guinea pigs in the scientific and medical experiments that we perform there.”
“Your orders mean nothing now. Your elders have met and decided that henceforth you will make ceremonial appearances but no substantive decisions. A group of us with more experience will rule.”
“You don’t have the authority to make such a decision.” Kim Jong-un’s blotched face showed his anger. Quick as a horse-opera gunslinger — all his practice at shooting ranges in his villas had paid off — he pulled the pistol from his shoulder holster and shot Choe dead.
Kim then turned to his chief bodyguard and said, “Call General Dong back. I have new orders for him. As my grandfather taught us, the best defense is a good offense. We’ll finally make use of our nukes. Our first targets are Seoul, Tokyo and the American bases on Guam and Okinawa. A final war fought to the bitter end is what the People’s Army and the people need, to restore unity at this dangerous moment.”
The bodyguard dialed but advised Kim that the general’s phone didn’t answer. Kim named two other generals, and the bodyguard dialed twice more but said he was unable to raise them, either.
Kim changed his mind on the spot. “I don’t like the looks of this,” he barked. “Prepare the Number One plane and guard the route to the border with maximum air escort from the bodyguard service — not from the regular military. I have a destination in mind, where we will be welcomed on short notice. Assemble the Number One household and my other usual traveling companions immediately, for departure within the hour. ”
“Yes, sir. For how long an absence from Pyongyang shall we prepare, sir?”
“Perhaps a long one. It appears things here are getting out of control. I don’t know who is trustworthy — besides you, of course. Where are the generals when I need them?” He raised his voice, his wattles swaying as he spoke.
The bodyguard had no reply.
Kim continued. “Starting a nuclear war is not simply a matter of pushing a button, it turns out. I have a feeling the generals who aren’t taking my calls are turncoats, busy joining traitorous reservists and elderly civilians to move against me.” Looking down on the floor, he kicked Choe’s blood-soaked body so hard it flipped over and we could see the dead man’s face.
“If I cannot take the honorable warrior’s way, winning or losing on the battlefield, the best I can do as the third-generation Kim ruler is to continue living to fight another day. I didn’t invest everything in the CDS market. I have enough secret funds stashed abroad to finance a long absence while we await a signal that my bad luck has turned good.”
The bodyguard nodded and stooped at a desk to begin phoning instructions.
Watching this on the TV screens, many of the Koreans in the restaurant looked uncomprehending, stunned.
“Jong-un is superstitious, like his father and like those protestors in the provinces,” Mi-song whispered. “He thinks he is having bad luck.”
As she walked off to speak with one group of officials, I glanced at another group, sleek-looking fellows huddled in one corner who appeared deeply grief-stricken. I guessed they might be Ri’s security operatives, whose futures now suddenly looked bleak. Would they have to answer for having operated the regime’s system of oppression — including the gulag to which so many North Koreans had lost friends, neighbors, relatives, schoolmates and coworkers?
Mi-song returned after a couple of minutes. “Jong-un already left the country. He has wrecked his reputation with the majority of the elite by slinking away like this. And letting the news out that he has turned tail is going to prove more effective in solidifying public opinion than if we had caught him and brought him back to face the music. We may count upon him to set up housekeeping abroad so lavishly as to provide our citizenry with an endless supply of unflattering news about his life in exile.”
“What if he gathers resistance forces around him, wherever he lands and returns to fight?”
“Off the record” — she looked into my eyes with a hint of amusement — “you should not assume that everyone on the plane with him is loyal.”
Some of the people in the room were responding to the ruler’s behavior by smiling nervously as they swapped comments with their companions.
“Are the soldiers out shooting protestors now?” I asked Mi-song.
“General Dong Chung-hee, leading member of our secret group, was the one you saw receiving that order. He ignored it and staged the coup that we had been planning for some time. He is chairing an executive committee drawn from our group of reformers.”
As if on cue, the TV announcer introduced General Dong, speaking from military headquarters as the country’s new top leader. The short-haired, uniformed, square-jawed military man spoke briefly. “Kim Jong-un has fled abroad after betting many billions of dollars of the country’s money on a scheme that my spokesman will describe. He lost his bet. The country must move quickly to avert financial catastrophe. The Committee for National Regeneration, of which I am chairman, is in charge. As my first official act today, I have canceled the former leader’s order to shoot civilian protestors. As my second, I am ordering the military storehouses opened. We will distribute a million tons of war-reserve rice to our long-suffering citizens — soldiers and civilians alike, with priority going to victims of the volcanic eruption and earthquake.”
That elicited scattered applause from around the room. The expressions and demeanor of around half of those present suggested guarded approval while a smaller percentage showed poker faces, probably keeping their options open. The sleek, worried fellows in the corner continued to huddle.
“We all need to eat well and restore our bodies because we have a huge task ahead rebuilding what almost every countryman realizes is a sick and broken economy,” General Dong said. “We need every pair of hands for this task. We cannot afford to waste our energy and resources on antagonizing other countries. Thus, while keeping enough strength to guard our borders and maintain our independence, we will shrink the military. The discharged soldiers will go back to school or switch to productive labor. Discharged officers will be retrained for important roles managing the civilian economy.”
He took a sip of water and continued. “We welcome assistance from international institutions and from other countries, including our neighbors. We need to develop our own economic strength before even thinking about discussing reunification with our Southern brothers. In exchange for appropriate assurances of non-intervention and the withdrawal of sanctions, we are prepared to halt the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and shift our resources to programs for peaceful development.”
In the restaurant, there was more applause. At the same time, a couple of uniformed officers with rows of ribbons and medallions on their tunics exchanged downcast looks. Maybe they suspected that the extra perks they’d been receiving were a thing of the past.
The television screen switched to scenes of provincial North Koreans knocking down propaganda boards that praised the second- and third-generation leaders. The crowds conspicuously exempted the founding Kim. “In response to an appeal by General Dong, these people have now gone home to prepare for participation in the new society,” the announcer intoned.
Mi-song turned to me. “Let us go.” We squeezed our way out of the room. As we drove off, she resumed talking. “Most of the military is coming around. Some ten thousand armed security officials from General Ri’s agency are resisting. They calculate, correctly, that they would fare poorly under the new administration. General Dong’s soldiers will make short work of them. The lucky ones among them are those with foreign postings, like those fellows we saw in the corner of the restaurant. Being in China already, they have a head start to seek asylum in Eritrea or some place.”
“Is democracy on tap?”
“First things first. For now, what the people would really appreciate is not democracy. They have never experienced such a thing. Cut off as they have been from the rest of the world, they have practically no idea what ‘democracy’ means. What they want is economic competence and an end to officials’ constant demands for bribery. Nevertheless, the new ruling group is made up of relatively cosmopolitan people whose own inclination is to end our isolation — to open up. When the people feel enough of those subversive breezes from outside and decide it is time for democracy we shall work with them to achieve it.”
“I heard General Dong say you’re not ready for reunification.”
“That is mutual. On the one hand, until we close some of the economic gap with South Korea there is no way the South would wish to take on the horrendous costs of reunification. Fear that the South would bankrupt itself by bearing that burden is why the sketchy early news of the collapse of the Kim regime was extremely bearish for Seoul markets today. That was totally predictable. Too bad we had not bought up a large CDS position. We could have made a killing.”
“On the other hand, Northerners are proud people who are unwilling to become a menial underclass wiping South Korean babies’ bottoms in a unified Korea. South Koreans who are competent in business, especially including defectors from the North, will be welcome to come up and help us achieve a level of affluence that would make such subordination unnecessary — but only if they refrain from taking advantage of our people’s naiveté through such predatory behavior as property speculation. We shall remain separate for the foreseeable future, drop our claims to sovereignty over the entire peninsula and ask the South to do the same, negotiate peace treaties with South Korea and the U.S. and in due course propose turning the Demilitarized Zone into a public park and wildlife preserve, keeping Panmunjom intact as a living museum.”
“Do you think it would be OK if I raised some money to install a modest statue, in the Joint Security Area, of Joe running for his life?”
“Why not? It would help remind visitors of the historical significance of the place.”
“Well, congratulations! I don’t suppose you have any ideas on how we might celebrate.”
“I have reserved a suite for us. We are almost there.”
* * *
In the hotel, I booked a flight leaving the following morning. I wrote a very short email to my parents telling them I was safe and hoped to send a nephew and his family their way. Then I phoned Lang and asked if he still had his job.
“You better believe it. The owners are delirious. Every other news organization in the world is crediting you and AsiaIntel for the original scoop. The publisher’s the one who will be looking for a new job. How did you leave Robert Posey?”
“Gone home to his Lord. I’ll give you the details in a minute. But first, what about Zack Nodding?”
“I reached him on the phone just before we put the story up and told him what we had. He blustered at first, saying that by the time his lawyers got through with us AsiaIntel would be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldberg Stanton. He’d make sure you and I both were fired and would never work again.”
“I can’t be fired. I’m a freelancer.”
“I told him that. Then I started playing excerpts from the recordings. He went quiet, hung up on me. By the time his work force started arriving for the day, the news was out and he wasn’t in the office. Nobody knew where he’d gone. Someone checked with the border authorities and learned he had crossed over to the mainland. The trail turns cold in Guangzhou.”
I dictated all the new developments for a second-day story recounting the events surrounding the coup and describing the new rulers’ plans.
Then I rang off and turned to Mi-song. The hotel mattress had a nice bounce. She and I made excellent use of it.
“How about if you join me?” I asked. “Since Japan was your spy school specialty, I bet you have a passport you can use to get on the plane to Tokyo with me tomorrow. The new North Korea will concentrate on making money, not war, so there shouldn’t be a requirement for a whole lot of spies. My band needs a keyboardist and my life needs you.”
“Thank you for thinking of me that way, Heck. I should like to go with you. But it is not to be.”
“Why not? You’re not married, are you?”
“Officially I am. A year before I went to New Zealand for my studies, Kim Jong-il decided it was unseemly for a woman of the age I had reached to remain unmarried. He arranged a marriage to a naval officer who likewise had waited longer than was considered proper to find a spouse. I thought it could work. He is bright, charming and very handsome. But he turned out to be gay. On the positive side, knowing him has helped develop my political awareness. The pressure for homosexuals to remain closeted is another cruel aspect of the old regime with which we shall dispense.”
“Can you just get a friendly divorce?”
“We shall do that. But, sadly, I cannot accept your flattering offer. There is another man, An Jae-ik. We were students together in New Zealand.”
Having no words, I let her talk on.
“He is the smartest of the group by far, absolutely brilliant. When it came time for him to return to Pyongyang, he wanted very badly to continue his studies. We staged a fake drowning accident and the New Zealand authorities certified him dead. He defected to the United States under an assumed name, enrolled at Stanford and earned a Ph.D. in developmental economics before starting to teach there. When several of us began plotting regime change, I alerted him and he told me to count him in. His hope was always to return and use what he had learned for the benefit of our people. Jae-ik will be flying over tomorrow to serve as General Dong’s chief economic advisor and planner.”
“So he’ll bring about the complete economic overhaul that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un never delivered?”
“We shall work with South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, Russia, the European Community, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the new Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — anyone who is willing to help us reform and open our economy. We shall jump-start our economic development by focusing on mining our mineral deposits. Jae-ik thinks we can move quickly into a period of double-digit growth, adapting the Japanese, South Korean and Chinese development models to create a market economy with guidance from the center.”
“Look out, Samsung.”
“Yes. The officials who have learned to run trading companies will be shown how to turn those into world-beating corporations.”
She halted the flood of words to look at dejected me.
“I fear this is my last time with you, so let us make the best of it,” she said, using her hands to reawaken my resting member. “Things are more passionate with you, I admit, but I shall stay with Jae-ik. He and the country need me. First I shall set up security for General Dong — a totally new system designed to root out corruption and keep the revolution pure, focused on what is good for all the people. At the same time, while I still can, I shall bear children, who will be part of North Korea’s first free generation. I hope you understand.”
Still polishing my engorged organ, she paused, looked me in the eye and added, “Besides, I suspect that your full-time musician days are over.”
* * *
At Shenyang airport, I neared the gate. Passing a sign for a Muslim prayer room I noticed another sign — brand new, as I could see from the clear plastic packaging that had yet to be peeled off it. “Christian Prayer Room,” it said.
I remembered Reverend Bob’s publicized complaint that airports were appeasing Muslims by building prayer rooms for them. He had announced a worldwide initiative to match the Muslims, room for room. Shenyang, where he’d often flown in and out, was the first. There was no Chinese translation of either the Christian or the Muslim sign — I supposed because of the Beijing regime’s policy of discouraging religious worship by its subjects.
A no-entry tape blocked the bottom of the doorway but the door was open. I had only a few minutes before my flight, and I was eager to get on the plane and put constant danger behind me. Still, I couldn’t resist walking over to take a peek inside. Tools and materials were strewn about but I saw no construction workers. Maybe they were on break. But Zack Nodding, in pinstripes and shined shoes, was standing on a folding metal chair, facing the far wall.
Yeah, it’s a small world. Too small. Shaking my head, I stepped over the tape, dropped my carry-ons just inside the door and went over to see what the hell he was up to.
I detoured around a pile of galvanized scaffolding tubes and stood behind Zack as he finished propping up a seven-foot wooden cross. Not noticing my presence, he bent, picked up a gas-powered framer’s nailing gun that had been dangling from the chair’s back and slammed a dozen nails through the cross to affix it to the wall. With his free hand, he pulled the two ends of his Armani necktie up over his head — I could see the label on the short end — and held them in place while he nailed the tie to the top of the cross. Then he reached into an inside jacket pocket, pulled out a sealed envelope and dropped it on the plywood subfloor.
Realizing that the obnoxious son of a bitch was about to hang himself, I was sorely tempted to turn around and leave – maybe with a parting shot like “Bon voyage, asshole!” But all the relentless training in altruism got the better of me. I crept up on him and clamped my arms around his legs.
Turning his head with a jerk, he tried to kick free of the hold as he glared down at me, his eyes wild. Having some angry thoughts to get off his chest, though, he stopped thrashing while he mustered the requisite sarcasm. “Well. ‘Bring hither the fatted calf.’ ”
“Might’ve known you’d show up. It was always about you.”
“Let me hold the chair while you pull off your necktie. Your life doesn’t need to end now.” I squatted and, with one arm still around his legs, grabbed the rickety chair with the other hand to steady it.
“In all those years, Reverend Bob never could stop talking about you, the wild rover who’d lit out for faraway lands to lead a sinful life.”
“Maybe that’s who I am. Maybe not.”
“You were his all-time favorite apostate project. I went along with his idea of hiring you to teach — thought that would let General Ri have his way with you. Turned out Reverend Bob was determined to protect you.”
“His protection seemed to have some holes in it.”
“Yeah. Min screwed up when he drew his knife on you. His assignment was to steal your passport so you couldn’t leave, same as Toombs. You screwed up when you left campus and gave Ri’s people a clear shot at you. You weren’t supposed to die until yesterday.”
“When the new driver showed up.”
“Right. I kept pleading with Reverend Bob — the last time after the supper meeting with the Iranians — to let the general find a quick and permanent remedy for your nosiness. We needed to stop you from endangering the mission. He wouldn’t listen. He was too excited by the thought you’d return to the fold at the last minute — come forward at the cathedral service and repent.”
“Washed in the blood of the lamb — and worthy to be sacrificed.”
That smart-ass remark brought out the same synapses-popping response I’d seen from Zack in his Hong Kong office.
Now that I knew — despite the fact I’d have preferred not to know — precisely how long Reverend Bob had planned for me to remain alive, I should’ve shut up or changed the subject back to the reasons why suicide would be a bad career move for Zack. Should’a would’a could’a – but didn’t. “I was grateful Reverend Bob always looked out for my soul.”
“You call that gratitude? Destroying a great man’s dreams? Think about it as you burn in hell for all eternity.” He turned toward the cross and jammed the gun barrel’s surrounding contact-compression spring mechanism against the oak, to switch off the safety. Spinning back to face me, he aimed.
I let go, dived and rolled away as he pulled the trigger. The gun spat a long framing nail deep into the plywood I’d been squatting on.
A loudspeaker out in the corridor crackled a warning. “Last call for China Southern Airlines flight six two seven to Tokyo.”
Zack turned to jam the safety off again. I’d rolled several feet away from him but not quite far enough that I could take cover behind the scaffolding pile in time to avoid getting nailed.
Fatback’s advice came back to me. Use anything handy. Scrambling to my knees, I slid the top length of scaffolding off the pile and clasped it between my right arm and the side of my chest. As Nodding swiveled to fire again, I swung my improvised jousting lance. The nail gun flew out of his hands and clattered onto the floor. The chair teetered but didn’t fall.
I got to my feet. “What you’re trying to do to yourself can be really painful. I suggest you pull your tie off, carefully, step down and walk away. But it’s your call. I gotta catch a plane.”
* * *
Back in my cabin, I gazed out the window at the farming hamlet nestled in a mini-fjord across the lake. I wouldn’t stick around long. I’d keep making music — had a performance gig the next week. Meanwhile, Lang was working up an assignment. I’d stay freelance, wouldn’t be a company man. Just needed a little while to lick my wounds. So I listened to the kettle rattling on top of the kerosene stove, played my guitar and wrote lyrics like these:
Reverend wanted to give a push to
Gog, Magog ’n’ Persia.
Yeah that preacher thought he’d give a shove to
Gog, Magog ’n’ Persia.
Light the world up like the burnin’ bush
So Jesus’d shout, “I heardjya;
I’m comin’ back — in glory!”
See that woman yonder tootin’ the walls down?
She a musical spy.
Woman tootin’ the walls down, yeah,
She a musical spy.
Now Armageddon gotta wait
For the sweet by-and-by.
Take your time. No hurry.
But I lost that woman to another man.
Don’ like it one bit.
Yeah I lost that woman to another man.
Ain’t that some shit?
Knock me way, way down —
But no use to th’ow a fit.
Like them Eye-talians say, that’s amore.
Could handle all that but the preacher in question,
He was my hero.
That crazy evangelist tried to blow up the world,
Preachin’ at ground zero.
Bob wadn’t the right name for him.
Should’a’ been Reverend Nero.
What can I say? It’s my story.
That’s why I got them nuclear blues,
That’s why I got them nuclear blues,
Them blues got me so low, low down,
Don’ see how a man can live.
In Nuclear Blues, I imagine a best-case scenario for an atrociously ruled country with which past denuclearization and peacemaking efforts have consistently foundered. Let’s hope current efforts succeed. If that comes to pass, then you may read this book as a work of alternate history — what might have happened. It’s fiction in any case, but informed by a great deal of reporting, research and news analysis done before and after the publication of my nonfiction history, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.
While credibility is my sole responsibility I owe gratitude to providers of inspiration and help, starting with two fellow members of the Kamiyama Writers’ Collective.
Beloved wife Susan Rose Stanga Martin has been my indefatigable and highly skilled chief editor and my brilliantly focused instructor in the ways that fiction differs from nonfiction. Couldn’t have done it without you, honey. Meanwhile, old friend Collin Piprell, a.k.a. the Bard of Bangkok, has checked in on an almost daily basis, leading by example and constantly encouraging me with his never-failing wit.
The extremely talented Rambling Steve Gardner, a real Mississippian photojournalist-turned-bluesman, served as a partial model for main character Heck Davis. Son Alexander Martin, also an excellent musician-journalist, helped among other ways by modeling up close some bicultural aspects of the Heck character.
As for the major character called Kim Jong-un, any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental … OK, strike that. Of course, there’s a real Kim Jong-un, but as of the time of writing we know very little about him — so little that even if I should put everything I know into a biography I wouldn’t feel good about charging for it. I’ve used my imagination to fill out this character’s personality, starting with what we do know about the historic Kim Jong-un. As far as I know, he has not yet bought a submarine yacht equipped with curtains to keep jealous dolphins from smashing the windows when they become aroused by watching him frolic in bed with members of his Pleasure Corps.
(By the way, I had drafted Nuclear Blues, and my agent had started looking for a publisher, well before the Sony Pictures movie The Interview came out, also featuring a fictional version of Kim Jong-un. Pants-wetting in the thriller industry when hackers alleged to be Kim’s agents attacked Sony computers — causing by some estimates as much as $100 million in damage — factored into the delay in publication until now, as did the untimely death of my agent.)
The young Reverend Bob who mentored the teenaged Heck is partially modeled on two fine young Southern Baptist pastors I knew when I was growing up, the Rev. Hoyt G. Farr and the Rev. Posey Davis, Jr. It was another young pastor I knew then, the Rev. Jimmy Garrett, who proclaimed that he had become a missionary in order to convert the Catholics (in Brazil, in his case) to Christianity. When it came to depicting the mature Reverend Bob, there was no shortage of well-publicized real-world evangelistic careers to help set out the general outlines — but, again, this is a work of imagination. Reverend Bob is a fictional creation.
Moving on to minor characters, a real-life visiting revivalist who required the congregation to sing seventeen verses of the invitation hymn “Just As I Am” was Dr. Chester E. Swor of Jackson, Mississippi, preaching at the Marietta, Georgia, First Baptist Church in March 1960.
The starved young woman with one eye pecked out is based on a real person who, before her death, was interviewed and videotaped by Kim Dong-cheol, a member of Jiro Ishimaru’s Rimjingang team of daring undercover journalists.
Some of Heck’s and Joe’s most remarkable adventures as “tourists” in Pyongyang I actually experienced during one of my seven visits, a tour on which my companions included Mary Ann Jolley and Stephen McDonell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Their video “North Korea: Parallel Universe,” currently available on YouTube, captures those adventures for posterity.
I knew a real yakuza who with his girlfriend kept a small white dog as a pet and who over the years had chopped off three finger joints from his left hand in separate gestures of apology to his boss. Although we were friendly and he never tried to kill me, he did on one occasion in 1979, from across his living room in Kawasaki, propel his throwing knife up to its hilt into the upholstery of his sofa, about an eighth of an inch from my shoulder. That was his way of responding when I asked about his role in the boss’s organization.
Choe Ryong-hae, North Korea’s Roger Stone, is a real person. I wrote about him in my earlier book. (Attention index-users: the customary romanization back then was Yong-hae.) I have no information suggesting he’s disloyal.
The originator of Heck’s trick of showing up in sweats and sneakers, announcing to his North Korean minders that he simply must run each morning for his health – and letting a minder run along with him until blisters hobble the man, leaving our hero free to roam – was Mike Tharp of the Wall Street Journal, when we spent three weeks in Pyongyang in 1979 covering the world Ping-Pong tournament.
It was the venerable Asia correspondent Donald Kirk who, to pass himself off as an ordinary tourist, claimed to teach at the School of Hard Knocks.
If anyone wonders, “Where were you when you learned about credit default swaps?” I have no trouble recalling that I was sitting at the feet of Oliver Biggadike and Uwe Parpart.
Contemplate Lance Gatling’s name and you have to suspect he was born to be a font of knowledge about weaponry. So he has proven in his generous advice to me.
For several years before Kim Jong-il’s death and Kim Jong-un’s succession to the leadership, I worked with other Bloomberg News journalists to cover North Korea. Thanks to Hideko Takayama, Peter Langan and Allen Cheng for great teamwork whose fruits are reflected in this novel — in, for example, the descriptions of Dandong and the examination of the treelessness of the mountainsides.
Reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth helped me understand how the interpretation of End Times prophecy developed in the nuclear age.
Whenever questions about photography have come up, I’ve been able to turn to Charlie Cole and Bob Kirschenbaum for enlightenment.
I’m extremely grateful for useful and encouraging comments from early and perceptive readers Rui Parada, Mark Schreiber, Charles Smith, Don Huse, Grant Newsham, Bob Whiting, Donald Baker, James Brown, Peter Montalbano, Jeff Purser, Melissa Wheeler, Oliver Hockenhull, Susan and Thad Riddle, Michael Breen, Bob Neff, Jack Swinney, Eric Eason, Sean Desmond, Hank Morris, Peter Jaeger, Larry Kelly, Rich Read, Rich Meyer and Sara Vagliano.
Thanks to Michael Johnson and Charles Kelly for rescuing me from computer glitches; to Barry Lancet, Greyson Bryan, Wanda Jane Maddox and Iain Wilson for sharing publishing lore; and to Geoffrey Tudor, Matt Aizawa and Ken Moritsugu for help in the home stretch.
After Jack Scovil died, I found that he was literally irreplaceable as my agent. Rest in peace, Jack. Eternal thanks for believing in my work, starting back when publishers showed almost zero interest in Korea.
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
About the Author
Growing up in the U.S. South, Bradley K. Martin weighed career goals ranging from preacher to president. After majoring in history at Princeton, studying law at Emory and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Vietnam War-era Thailand, he settled on journalism and spent decades as an Asia correspondent. The two-time Pulitzer nominee was bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, Asia Times and Asian Financial Intelligence. For Bloomberg News he was chief North Korea watcher. He has taught journalism as a visiting professor at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fresno State University and the University of Iowa. His earlier book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, won the Asia-Pacific Special Book Prize.
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Also by Bradley K. Martin: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty