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 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.
Chapter 15: People in the Next Valley
I seemed to be in a race with General Ri — and who else? Sable had contended the campus security rules were for our protection. Father Paul had given me a different version: the authorities wanted to keep outsiders from seeing the reality of the country. So far, on my morning runs, I had stuck to the prescribed paths. I did the same for one more run, to lull the guards back into complacency after the Min incident. I used that time to plan.
A narrow path led off one of the roads. It snaked up an adjoining hill where twenty or so mature trees, like those I’d seen inside the Kim villa’s grounds, had escaped the massacre of the forests. I would check it out the following day. I’d already sat still for enough frustrating restrictions. Sooner or later, any self-respecting newsperson must test the limits.
The next morning, as planned, I veered off course and ran up the path. While I knew I wouldn’t find a securities trading floor or similar temple of high finance hidden away in those mountains, I wanted to know where the family compound was.
My first guess proved correct. At the top of the hill I saw, in a cleared valley below me, scores of men and women. I stepped behind a tree in case anyone should look up. Dressed in dark blue Mao suits, they were passing single file through a stone-faced arch built into a barren hill opposite the hill on which I stood. Except for the lack of a conveyor belt or a railway backing up to it, it might have been the entrance to a mine. I saw no buildings. Preschool and school-age children ran around, getting their energy out, on the packed dirt of the valley floor. I didn’t watch for long before returning to my usual route.
That day I asked Pak to stay after class. “There are people in the next valley. Is that where your father is?”
He looked troubled. “We are not supposed to talk about it. The university has arranged for the families of students to move to this area. There is work for our parents in the underground factory.”
“What sort of factory?”
“It is called the One Eight Tractor Factory.”
“Why would a tractor factory be underground?
“My father told me the authorities anticipate American and South Korean bombing attacks, so they try to protect important installations by placing them underground.”
The country indeed had a high level of tunneling technology. The North had built invasion tunnels under the DMZ. The South had discovered several. I’d visited a couple, including one that had been turned into a tourist attraction. Photographing it, I’d felt amazed that so many hundreds of people, a large percentage of them Chinese tourists, showed up each day to experience claustrophobia first hand.
“When can I meet with your father?”
“I will ask, the next time I see him.”
* * *
Before the week was out, as I’d been halfway expecting, Sable called me in for a perfunctory lecture. “You’re a role model for the students. If I may make a suggestion, you might want to pray over whether drinking whiskey is really a behavior you want to model for them.”
Without waiting for a reply, she then passed the word from Reverend Bob that he expected me, in due course, to lead the singing at Sunday services. To scope out what the song leader role would entail, I decided to attend church.
The next Sunday, following the Fatback rule, I made sure to sit in a back corner of the auditorium where I could watch the largest number of churchgoers at once, just in case anyone might want to target me during the service.
The auditorium filled quickly. Most students were present, but I didn’t see Pak. I hoped he had special permission for a home visit.
Bartow Toombs came in and sat beside me. His sour expression made clear that his situation and mood hadn’t improved. “Look who’s in the pulpit today.”
I looked. Wearing an aloha shirt over pressed red trousers and white buck shoes, the Rev. Darley Scratch was preparing to do a guest turn in Reverend Bob’s absence. Scratch was one of those young true believers who’d been chosen on the basis of charisma and athletic good looks to go to Hawaii for intensive training in the wiles of converting other young people.
His day job at the university was physical education, but everyone knew that Reverend Bob was grooming him for bigger things. Still single, he was closely attuned to what younger people wanted — and what they did not want, the old conservative Sunday-go-to-meeting garb and sedate services. It was prophesied that televangelism was in his future.
Coach Scratch, as he liked to be called, exerted a magnetic pull on many of the students, female and male alike. I had chatted with him briefly about our mutual interest in motorcycles, after noticing a full-color “Biking for the Bible!” poster tacked to a bulletin board. It pictured him tank-topped astride a gleaming hog, his seductive smile highlighting clenched white teeth, his tanned biceps bulging, blond mane flying in the wind, as he tooled past a venting Big Island volcano. A rhyme had occurred to lyrics-minded me: Darley on a Harley.
Rock ’n’ holy-roller — that was Coach Scratch as a preacher. Not even waiting for the sermon, he began his oratorical fireworks while reading the scripture of the day. He didn’t announce what verses he would quote, but once he’d started I realized they were from Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39. That’s where the prophet quotes God as foretelling a great battle with Gog, the enemy of God and the people of Israel. With rhythmic emphasis the coach screamed through his microphone:
“‘THUS saith the LORD GOD’ — huh! ‘It shall ALso come to PASS’ — huh! — ‘that at the SAME time shall THINGS come into thy MIND’ — huh! — ‘and thou shalt THINK an evil THOUGHT to turn thine HAND upon the DESolate PLAces that are now inHABited’ — huh! — ‘and upon the PEOple that are GATHered out of the NAtions that DWELL in the MIDST of the LAND.’ Huh! ‘It shall be in the LATter days, and I will bring THEE against my LAND’ — huh! — ‘that the HEATHen may know ME’ — huh! — ‘when I shall be SANCtified in THEE, O GOG’ — huh! — ‘before their EYES.’”
Hardly still for a nanosecond, his voice hoarse from shouting, he went wild for the Lord. At one point I thought he was about to levitate. The show didn’t offend me the way it obviously did Toombs. I was used to that sort of worship. Since moving to Asia I’d confined my churchgoing to times I was back home visiting my folks in Mississippi. As I’d told my students on the first day of class, instead of going back to either Calvary or the Korean church, I would seek out black Pentecostal congregations — the more demonstrative, the better.
Experiencing their uninhibited gospel music, sermons punctuated with speaking in tongues, dancing in the aisles and passionate amens could only help me pursue a professional standard I liked to describe using a line from Barbara Hambly’s novel Bride of the Rat God. In 1920s Hollywood, a gramophone is wound up to produce the sound of a woman singing the blues “gay and sad at once, like a stranded angel who had traded holiness for humanity but remembered what it used to be like to know God.”
As Darley Scratch raved on, though, I looked at North Koreans present and sensed from their expressions that most of them didn’t get it. Lost on them was whatever the coach was shouting about when he made a joyful noise unto the Lord. As Scratch continued — quoting the part about how God will turn Gog back “and leave but the sixth part of thee and will cause thee to come up from the north parts and will bring thee upon the mountains of Israel” — I glanced at the windowed booth where three Korean interpreters sat.
The coach hadn’t been stopping for the women to take their turns translating. Whether that was according to plan or not, it left them to attempt simultaneous interpretation — which is exhausting work and requires special training. Seeing a frantic expression on the face of the one who was speaking, I pulled a translation earpiece from the hymnal slot.
Switching on the earpiece, I heard the poor woman jabbering incomprehensibly in Korean. She would correctly translate the occasional English passage the coach uttered but then miss several more before translating another. Evidently, there’d been a screw-up. She’d failed to get advance notice of what he planned to quote from the Word.
Employing the same rhythmic shouting and interjections, Darley moved directly into an apocalyptic sermon. “ ‘GOD will release his STORED UP WRATH’ — huh! — ‘paving the WAY for the triUMphant return of JEsus.’ ” After he had offered further graphic description of the shit storm at the end of time, he paused and flashed his trademark smile before quoting Revelation 20: “ ‘I saw an ANgel’ — huh! — ‘coming down out of HEAven’ — huh! — ‘having the KEY to the ABYSS’ — huh! — ‘and HOLDing in his HAND a great CHAIN’ — huh! ‘He seized the DRAGon, that ancient SERpent’ — huh! — ‘who is the DEvil, or SAtan’ — huh! — ‘and bound him for a THOUsand years.’ ”
Scratch boomed on, swaying from side to side, walking in circles, raising his arms for hallelujahs — heedless of the puzzled looks from Koreans. He quoted Peter’s second epistle.
“ ‘LOOKing for and HASTing unTO the COMing of the day of GOD’ — huh! — ‘whereIN the heavens being on FIRE shall be disSOLVED’ — huh! — ‘and the ELEments shall MELT with fervent HEAT’ — huh! ‘NEvertheLESS we, according to his PROmise’ — huh! — ‘look for NEW heavens and a NEW earth, whereIN dwelleth RIGHTeousness.’ ”
Younger foreign faculty and staff members were getting into it, shouting “Amen!” and dancing around in the aisles. Sable and Ezra — but not Shirley, I noticed — spoke in tongues. That completely stopped the interpreter.
Nevertheless, gradually more and more of the Koreans in the congregation, most of whom were students, tried — or at least looked tempted — to respond in kind to Darley’s call to arms. I remembered how at the Pyongyang mass games, when the thousands of colored cards flipped into place to create portraits of the leaders, thousands of North Koreans on the field jumped up and down like dogs on their hind legs begging their master for bones. It couldn’t be too hard to transfer that sort of worship from the country’s triune dynastic godhead to Jehovah, Jesus and the Holy Ghost.
Toombs looked my way and rolled his eyes. But eventually he became the odd man out as Scratch with his infectious cries and whoops and leaps and grunts had the whole place jumping. Even I did some arm-waving to get into the spirit of things.
When the ecstasy reached fever pitch, the coach gave his altar call, an impassioned plea for sinners to walk down front, confess their sins and either accept salvation or — if they were among the majority who had done that already — rededicate their lives to Christ. “Not a ONE of us — huh! — is free of SIN — huh! — and only JEsus can SAVE us! Come down the aisle NOW — huh! — and throw yourself on HIS MERCY!”
I’d been painfully aware from the start of the service that the lugubrious music on the program failed to match Darley’s preaching style. I figured the listed numbers were typical of the selections for the usual Sunday services, chosen by Reverend Bob and the woman who played the electronic organ. To my dismay, the invitation hymn, which followed the altar call, turned out to be “Just As I Am.”
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Once, at a Calvary Church revival during my senior year in high school, the guest preacher reported having been assured by God that someone would come down front that night. But even after we’d gone through all six verses of that hymn twice and almost gotten through them a third time, not a single soul had stood to make the trek down the aisle. Only after seventeen verses did the preacher give up. “Just As I Am” in its standard arrangement had always struck me as downright ugly. The lyrics were naggy; the melody, draggy. By the time Joe and I filed out after those seventeen verses, I was filled with the devout hope that I’d sung it for the last time.
But now here I was singing it in the Posey Korea University worship service. As music director I was going to have to make sure this sort of disconnect wouldn’t happen again on Sundays when Darley filled in. I might even want to ask Reverend Bob whether he’d care to have me pep up the music on days when he preached, as well.
We had plodded through five verses of “Just As I Am” and started on the sixth when I looked up and realized that a chubby female student bearing one of the few two-syllable Korean family names, Namkung, was walking toward the altar, her mouth set, the bangs of her severe pageboy haircut covering her forehead but failing to hide the tears that streamed down her cheeks. I reflected that this was a positive development to the extent it made it unnecessary for Darley to have us repeat the verses.
“There she goes again,” Bartow muttered in my ear. “She rededicated the other time I came to church, too, so today makes at least twice this term. Wonder what her sins could possibly be. I’d figured she was like the Norfolk High School cheerleaders: ‘We don’t drink! We don’t smoke! Norf’k! Norf’k! Norf’k!’ ”
The old joke was still funny, but guffawing at the most emotional moment of the service would not have helped me meld into the university community.
* * *
On Monday, Pak stayed after class. “I spoke with my father. He does not worry about himself if you meet — he is accustomed to risky situations. He worries about you. They send people to political prison camps in this country. Few get out, ever. They even shoot foreigners sometimes. There was such a case just a few weeks ago at Panmunjom, we are told, although we have heard no details.”
“I’m also pretty accustomed to risky situations.”
Pak grinned. “Abeoji told me you would respond that way, after he heard what happened in your room the other night.” As soon as he’d said it his face turned red. He felt he’d said too much. Besides Bartow’s morning-after camaraderie and Sable’s admonition, the response of the community had been to pretend nothing had happened.
“If you go over to meet him, you will need to blend in,” Pak continued, glancing at my jeans, brightly checked shirt and wide leather belt with the big brass John Deere buckle embossed with a picture of an ancient tractor. I assured him I could manage to blend. We settled on Wednesday night, after supper. With a prayer meeting scheduled, few people would be out and about.
I found Yu studying alone at a dining hall table and we compared notes. She’d been living in the dormitory with other students long enough to wear down their distrust of the newcomer, and she’d started to hear a little about the campus’s parallel universe. Of course she’d reported all our new tidbits to Mi-song.
I had my hair cut again, to standard North Korean length. Then I washed the people’s clothing I’d bought in Pyongyang, to wear off the new. On the appointed evening I donned the outfit, complete with portrait pin and Lenin cap. The image in the mirror startled me. I could’ve been looking at one of the taller cadre in Kim Jong-un’s entourage.
* * *
It was a moonlit night. Without using a flashlight I could make my way, first on the familiar gravel roads and then all the way up the hill on the dirt path and down the other side. Sneaking around in disguise to get to a place I wasn’t supposed to know even existed — that gave me a rush, I admit.
I was so eager to meet a new cousin that I failed to notice an armed guard standing where the path I’d taken fed into the field. I came out from behind a tree and there he was, a few inches from me. Another man standing on the field called to him just then and the guard walked over to talk. I crept back behind the tree until the guard finished his conversation and headed across the field.
Taking a chance, I emerged then. The man who had distracted the guard was still waiting on the field, in people’s clothes but with no portrait pin. Instantly noticing his strong facial resemblance to Mama, I exulted. We had to be related. “That was close,” he whispered. He motioned for me to walk beside him, then kept his expression impassive as we passed a few other people. Mostly men, they were standing in small groups smoking and talking.
My escort guided me through an opening in the same hillside I’d walked down. Inside was a dank but clean and well-lit tunnel punctuated by the doors to living quarters, each unit carved out of stone.
As we entered the main room of their apartment, with its whitewashed walls, his wife greeted me. She ushered me toward the main item of furniture, a low Korean table. Then she closed the door to the public corridor. Finally, she closed the connecting door to the second room, in which their two younger children were sleeping — but not before I had glimpsed them on their pallets. Pak’s father and I sat on the floor before the table, which was set with a steaming teapot and three palm-sized mugs without handles. Ignoring the tea and with obvious relish, he opened the bourbon I’d presented him and poured some into two of the mugs.
Their windowless apartment didn’t give off the unpleasant smells you might expect in an underground dwelling, even though the exhaust fans seemed not to be working very hard. Pak senior explained why. Gesturing toward the passage, he told me that the kitchen and dining hall, as well as the bathrooms, were communal and far down the hall.
The floor was covered in the traditional lacquered paper, which gave off a yellowish sheen. It was a heated floor, in the Korean ondol style. It felt toasty against my butt. I adjusted my haunches to get comfortable. “Is the furnace wood-fired or coal-fired?”
“Unusual for the DPRK, isn’t it.”
“Unlike most places in the country, we have a good power supply. That is done to keep the factory running.”
We quickly established that the elder Pak, whose given name was Shin-il, liked a drink and was indeed my first cousin.
“Mama will be thrilled I’ve met you. I wish I could phone and put you on to speak to her. I’m sorry to have to tell you that Halmeoni died a couple of years ago. It was her abiding regret that she still didn’t know whether her husband and son were alive or dead. She only knew they hadn’t made it south. She guessed they’d been killed or captured.”
“Halmeoni guessed right.” Shin-il closed his eyes and beamed as he sipped at the bourbon as if he’d never tasted anything so wonderful. “After the family was separated into two groups in the confusion of the escape, the two males stumbled into a communist camp after dark. The communists killed Halabeoji. After that, they were sitting around their campfire discussing what to do with Abeoji, who was only ten years old then. He heard one of them say they should kill him, too, so he ran for his life into the woods. They fired some shots at him.”
“Obviously they missed, or you wouldn’t be here today.”
“Yes, but it was only a temporary escape. They recaptured him the next day. A party commissar who was with them said they should spare him because he could run fast. Once the war ended, the country would need strong young men to rebuild. They took him back to Kaesong and turned him over to some relatives until after the war when they were all banished to a coal-mining district.”
“Halmeoni was a devout Christian. She must have raised your father that way and maybe that’s how your family got to the Posey compound.”
“Actually what my father was exposed to, before finding himself a citizen of a country that banned religion, was not much more than the version taught to young children in Sunday school. Then, after the war, he was brought up as a Kimilsungist. That’s the way I was brought up, too, as was Joung-ah, my wife. We learned to bow at every meal and thank the Great Leader for all the bountiful blessings he had bestowed upon us.”
With that, he turned, raised his cup and gave a nod to a blank wall where, I gathered, in a normal North Korean home the leaders’ portraits would hang. The guy had a sense of humor.
“Nor were our children brought up to be Christian believers — although they, like Joung-ah, have been receptive to Christian teachings since we came here. Before that, we all suffered the consequences of the family’s half-successful escape attempt and history of Christian belief.”
“You had a lot of difficulties, I gather.”
“Although the security services eventually upgraded us from the ‘hostile’ class to the ‘wavering’ or unreliable class, we were never considered ‘loyal.’ I was stuck working down in a mine shaft with no chance to better my prospects because of the supposed sins of my ancestors.”
Joung-ah brought communal bowls of three kinds of kimchi from their dining hall and put them on the table, with three pairs of long metal chopsticks. She joined us, drinking tea. I told them a little about the life of Halmeoni and Mama in Seoul, where they’d first settled, and then in Mississippi. Then I returned to my hosts’ story.
“As non-Christians, how did your son end up at Posey Korea University and you and the rest of your family in this compound?”
“The coal mine where I was assigned to work wasn’t producing. Still, I was expected to show up for work every day. To survive, we grew vegetables around our house and in a secret forest plot. Joung-ah sold them in the market. But the authorities put an end to that when they started yet another crackdown on the markets. We fled to China, fearing starvation if we stayed in the DPRK.”
“Were things better in China?”
“We both managed to get low-paying work, so we were all eating, but it was a rough life. We were illegal aliens, hunted by the police of both countries. When a recruiter put the word out in the Chinese village where we were hiding that any North Korean of Christian belief or background could come here, we revealed ourselves and volunteered. Here we do not even have to wear those.” He pointed at my portrait pin. “The rules of this place recognize that belief in God is inconsistent with belief in Kim Il-sung.”
“Isn’t there a catch? I’ve always trusted Dr. Posey, but he’s not the only one involved in this strange arrangement. Why did the regime bring people it considered dissidents here and feed you quite well — judging by this kimchi we’re eating — when even members of the ‘loyal’ class were hard-pressed to get enough to eat? Why did the authorities let the Posey organization build a university and preach Christianity not only to the students but also to their families? Am I wrong to think there could be something fishy about the whole deal?”
“We were so eager — so desperate — that we banished doubts at the time. But now I lie awake at night wondering whether that offer was too good to be true.”
“Do you both work in the tractor factory?”
“Yes, we are assembling metal parts into subassemblies.”
“Which are then made into tractors?”
“So they tell us, but . . .”
“You doubt it?”
“My friend who works with me used to be a farmer on a big cooperative farm. He drove a tractor until the Russians and Chinese gave up communism and stopped supplying us with highly subsidized fuel. That was when farms in this country had to resume plowing with oxen. He has difficulty figuring out where in a tractor the items we make would fit. ‘That must be quite some high-tech tractor,’ he said once. The supervisor looked hard at him and he has not repeated the remark down there, but when I see him up here he shakes his head and says, ‘Quite a tractor!’ Then he laughs.”
“He thinks you’re making weapons.”
“In that case, keeping enemy countries from targeting the site could be the reason for putting the factory and your living quarters underground.”
“And the railroad spur. That is underground, too, terminating in a big siding in the factory tunnel where materials and supplies come in and the finished products go out.”
“I wonder if Dr. Posey has had similar doubts. Has he spent time down in the factory?”
“He sometimes comes over to preach. But the church in this compound is in a different tunnel. I have never seen him in our factory.”
“A church in a tunnel …”
“Yes, that is where they are holding the prayer meeting right now. It is really something to see — a cathedral carved out of limestone. You should have a look sometime, whether or not you believe in the religion.”
“That last part could be said about a good many churches around the world, but count on the DPRK to put everything on a lower plane.” I chuckled but Shin-il didn’t. I’d had enough to drink, was enjoying my own joke too much. Anyway, it was time to leave before the end of the prayer meeting when the faithful would pour forth from another hole in the ground, watched by camp security. I thanked the couple and headed back.
As I walked up the hill, my feelings were mixed. I had found a cousin. That was a cause for rejoicing. But it appeared that North Korea had managed to get Reverend Bob’s organization tied up with something that was not listed among its spiritual and charitable purposes — something that I feared would, in the end, deeply hurt my old friend and mentor.
I cringed as I imagined the headlines:
ARMS PLANT HIDDEN AT EVANGELIST’S UNIVERSITY CAMPUS IN NORTH KOREA
Hearing something rustling behind a tree, I froze and waited. Nothing happened. It must have been a breeze stirring up some vegetation. The scare reminded me: I had to assume I was still on General Ri’s hit list.
Chapter 16: Strategy Sessions
I stopped by the dining hall, where Yu was studying and alerted her. “The students’ parents have been told they’re building tractor assemblies, but some suspect they’re making weapons components instead.”
She looked up from the statistics textbook and gave me her full attention.
“I’m afraid the people here are being used as a tool for the regime. I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t go over right now and warn Reverend Bob.”
“If I may, permit me to suggest that you wait until I have made a report before you pass along your suspicions to others.”
She came to my door a few minutes later. I stepped outside to hear her convey Mi-song’s advice that I not speak with university officials about the matter. Before I could protest she said, “My boss has confirmed that your attacker was working for General Ri.”
I considered the implications. “And Ri, besides being connected with the plot on my life and thus, presumably, with the CDS scam, probably was involved with any arms manufacturing as well. I’d feel pretty bad about sitting on that kind of information.”
“My boss says she cannot imagine that arms could be made here without the knowledge of at least one person in the Posey organization. Someone must know, and it stands to reason that whoever that is was also in on the plot against you. She says that even if you tell only Dr. Posey, it is simply human nature that he would wish to share the information with one or more of the people working with him — perhaps tipping our hand to our adversaries.”
I pondered. “That makes sense. For now, I won’t speak with Reverend Bob about it — but I’m at a loss trying to figure what our next step should be. Did Ms. Kim offer any ideas on that?”
It occurred to me that our side needed to do some brainstorming. The university’s upcoming long weekend would provide enough time for me to travel to Dandong and Hong Kong. The students would be holding an intensive religious retreat — as if their daily life on campus didn’t already amount to just that with all the religion courses, morning prayer sessions and church services. I stuck my head into the dean’s office and told Sable I wanted to leave for a little R&R. She wasn’t happy. Darley Scratch was there with her, planning the retreat, and they’d just been talking about asking me to handle the music.
Resignation showed on her face as she evidently decided she shouldn’t begrudge me a vacation after the unsettling experience in my apartment. “Ask Byon to work out your travel arrangements.”
* * *
Back at the bar in Arirang, seated with Paul, my Catholic priest friend, I picked up where he and I had left off: “You didn’t tell me the Posey Korea University recruiters were bringing not only students but also family members.”
He thought for a moment. “Oh, yeah, as I recall I was getting ready to mention it, but that was when Ms. Kim came over and we never got back to the subject. What I’ve heard is that this is something that they want to keep secret from the faculty for some reason. Let me guess: You found out what that reason is?”
“Not sure yet, but I’m working on it. On another matter, what’s your take on the third-generation successor?”
“The longer he sticks around without pushing through real reform and opening, the more likely it becomes that malcontents among his own subjects will tear him limb from limb. He doesn’t feed even his soldiers, much less the ordinary civilians. And it isn’t just bad economic policy. Whatever money does come in he diverts to the benefit of himself and other top elite.”
He took a sip from his drink. “On my dad’s side, I’m ethnically Chinese. I grew up understanding the idea — which the Chinese gave to the rest of East Asia — that bad rulers eventually lose the ‘mandate of heaven.’ The sell-by date of the Kims’ mandate is close at hand, I’d guess.”
“Do they teach North Koreans about the mandate of heaven?”
“Textbooks and the propaganda outpourings that pass for news do explicitly describe the Kims as rulers sent from heaven. In no way do they acknowledge that the ‘peerless’ dynasty’s heavenly mandate could ever be withdrawn.”
“Yet people have started to connect the dots and revert to their ancestors’ view that if heaven gives, it also takes away. They’ve had some help in that from smuggled South Korean TV historical drama series.”
“Do Northerners dare talk among themselves about such things?”
“Some have started to venture such remarks — more often one on one than in larger groups. When Kim Jong-un had his uncle put to death, there were economic consequences. Trade with China declined; inflation rose. The young ruler got a lot of the popular blame. In a patriarchal society, there’s enough of the traditional cast of mind left that not a few North Koreans saw the country’s economic problems as inevitable punishment.”
“Hope that wasn’t the end of it.”
“It wasn’t. There was more of that sort of talk when the Chinese cut off coal imports and agreed in the United Nations to a cap in fuel exports. Of course, Beijing adopted those measures in connection with international sanctions regarding the nuclear and missile programs. But the timing suggested it was also in retaliation for Pyongyang agents’ assassination of Kim’s elder brother Jong-nam, who had been under Chinese protection. Choking trade certainly hurt the North Korean economy. And in the traditional view of things, fratricide is right up there with avunculicide as a cardinal sin.”
A waitress came by, and Father Paul stopped talking until she was out of our hearing.
“Jong-un’s father was a nasty fellow. Even during the great famine, though, as unattractive as he was, Kim Jong-il managed to stay in power — because he was cunning and vicious, and everyone feared him. This youngster is at least as brutal, maybe more so. He had not only his uncle but also the uncle’s close associates killed, and then applied guilt by association to kill or otherwise punish their families — people who in many cases had been this close to the Kim family.”
The priest held up two fingers to indicate how close. Then he continued. “It may be that the uncle really was plotting to bring down Kim Jong-un and replace him with the elder brother, and that Jong-un got wind of the plot. There have been such reports, and they suggest compelling reasons for getting rid of the uncle and brother. But we’ve also seen other reports of killings that suggest Jong-un is simply brutal by nature. A general is said to have been put to death for showing ‘disrespect’ by falling asleep at a meeting in the presence of Kim Jong-un, for example. Farther down in society a terrapin grower supposedly drew a death sentence for losing some of his animals — due to the state’s failure to provide enough power to keep the tanks pumping.”
“I hadn’t heard those stories before. Sounds like Kim’s on the Stalin end of the bloodthirstiness scale. Any chance of a revolution?”
“It might be wishful thinking to call the situation pre-revolutionary. But what I hear is that when the peace process collapsed, people were really disappointed — to the extent that more of them untied their tongues and spoke ill of Kim. He had gotten their hopes up — they’d felt change was coming — and then he went back to emphasizing the military over the economy. Sanctions started biting again in people’s everyday lives.”
“You feel sorry for the kid?”
“I’ve seen enough of what the Kims have wrought that I feel sure if the task fell to me I would pull the trigger myself. Why do you ask?”
“Just like to know where people stand. I’m a newcomer here, you know.” I looked up. “Here comes Byon. Do you know where he stands?”
“I think he’s a good guy but I wouldn’t bet my life on it,” he said in a soft voice.
“Same here.” I remembered how critical of the regime Byon had been on our first trip and how loyal to Reverend Bob he seemed.
As Byon arrived at our table Father Paul changed the subject. “So, Professor Davis, are you going to make music for us again tonight?”
I turned and gave the new arrival a welcoming look. “Pull up a stool, Byon. Well, I’m a little tired from the long drive ― as I imagine Byon is, too. After the cocktail hour, I think I’ll just go back to my hotel for a quick bite and then read myself to sleep.” I didn’t mention that I had an appointment.
“That probably would be a wise move since Ms. Kim, the star of the show, took the evening off. She won’t be here to liven things up, and there’s no replacement yet for that bouncy little harpist, Ms. Yu. I’m anticipating a fairly sedate performance.” He looked up. “Meanwhile, here’s Quentin McLoughridge joining us.” Father Paul introduced the broad-faced fellow, squarely built inside his gray tweed suit, as a London-based businessman.
McLoughridge gave me a handshake and ordered a Scotch. He told me he’d begun commercial involvement with North Korea decades before, had handled the country’s substantial gold shipments. “Business has ebbed and flowed. Before the peace process collapsed I was setting up a fund so that foreigners could invest in enterprises in North Korea. Since there is no stock market, I was arranging for our fund to form joint ventures with official DPRK entities in such fields as mining. Anything on that scale is, of course, on hold for the time being. The sanctions — counterproductively, I believe — scare everyone away. I’m heading for Pyongyang tomorrow, by train, but my purpose this trip is merely to check in with my network. I must keep contacts open until circumstances become more promising.”
It was pretty obvious that Father Paul, Byon and I were not prospective investors. McLoughridge changed the subject. “I understand there is rather more going on at Posey Korea University than meets the eye.”
Byon sucked orange pop through his straw. I said nothing.
McLoughridge continued. “I hear the Posey organization has something to export and is in contact with one of my competitors — someone with far less experience than I have in dealings with the DPRK. Next time you see the good reverend let him know that I’m available. Whenever my competitor makes a cock-up of it, as he is certain to do, I’m the man to put things to rights.”
Byon put down his pop. “Dr. Posey is concerned with souls, not sales.”
“All I’m telling you is what I hear, something about tractors.”
That certainly got my attention. Maybe I was about to learn more about what Shin-il and his co-workers were manufacturing in the tunnel.
Instead, McLoughridge knocked back the remainder of his Scotch and stood to leave. “Well, gentlemen, carry on. I have an appointment down the street.”
He wasn’t getting away from me that easily. “I’ll head out now, too.” As we walked together toward the Renmin Hotel I asked McLoughridge for more detail on what he had heard.
“The competitor I mentioned, a Lebanese named Maloof, is staying in the Renmin, as I am. When I came down to the lobby this evening he was sitting in a chair with his back to me, talking in Arabic on his phone. I suppose he had assumed no one else in the lobby would understand him. He knows of my modest capability with the language. Turning around, he could see that I would have overheard his end of the conversation. That got his knickers in a twist, as I easily determined from the scowl on his ugly face. Tractors are small change, but in view of the unpleasant history of our competition, I do enjoy irritating him. Every small triumph is to be relished. Well, cheerio.”
* * *
I had eaten a bowl of room-service noodles by the time I heard the sound of someone moving around outside in the hall. Not sure whether it was Mi-song or a less welcome visitor, I took note that my available weaponry consisted solely of the minibar’s miniature bottles. Then there came a tapping on the door. I asked who was there.
“Mi-song.” There was an edge in her voice. “Please open the door.”
I opened it and helped her off with her coat. Her face was pale and she was trembling. I moved to embrace her. That seemed the right thing to do for an agitated lady who, when last glimpsed, had been kissing me.
She brushed me off and pulled herself together. “I feared you were dead.”
“What’s this about?”
“A hotel guest has been murdered in his room directly above yours, two floors up, a British businessman. Apparently, the killer was waiting in the man’s room and suffocated him with a plastic bag.”
“Yes. He was a big man, I’m told, and he put up a struggle and made a lot of noise.”
She looked at me. “You knew him?”
“We met this evening, in Arirang. My god.”
“By the time hotel security arrived at the room he was dead and his killer had escaped.”
“The usual suspects?”
“It seems likely the assassin misread a digit in the room number.” She looked hard at me. “I was afraid whoever did it had realized the mistake and come after you. You must have been the real target.”
“Not necessarily. Is it safe to talk here?”
“This hotel assigns certain wired rooms to guests whom the authorities wish to spy upon. You are not in one of those rooms. I had thought that this would be a good place to talk with you about what we must do next.”
I told her what I had learned from McLoughridge. “The fact he had overheard Maloof’s conversation in Arabic probably got him killed.”
“Assuming that Ri was behind tonight’s murder, they may still be planning to come and kill you. It is possible that they had intended to do so but McLoughridge jumped the queue.” She pulled out her phone, dialed and instructed someone to keep an eye on Maloof, as well as any others, locals or foreigners, who might be working with him, and to watch my room.
“And that brings us to the purpose of my current trip.” I indicated the room chairs with my arm and we both sat. I let her begin.
“We still do not know who has taken the broker role in the CDS scam,” she said. “And we have yet to prepare a counter-scheme. Although I devised the swaps plan, my knowledge of the financial markets is wholly academic. I gather you have contacts who are qualified and perhaps willing to help us, people in the industry who have practical knowledge.”
“Helmut Fassler’s the guy. I tried to call him earlier in the evening, but his phone was turned off. He’s the one who taught me about the CDS market and how easily it could be manipulated if traders willing to help could be brought into the scheme. He’s had enough further time to think about this that there may be a breakthrough idea lurking in a corner of that big brain. I’ll call again in the morning and arrange to meet him.”
“Is there anyone else?”
I could understand her evident disappointment that I’d come up with no better plan than to return to an old advisor. “Before you brought me the news tonight, I was thinking Quentin McLoughridge had the expertise to help if he wanted, and I might not need to use my Hong Kong ticket. But we can scratch his name from the list. Anyhow, I doubt McLoughridge would have wanted to get involved since his business depended on good relations with the powers that be in your country.”
“You are quite right. My agency watches the handful of European businessmen who have invested time and money in the hope of making deals in my country. We maintain dossiers on all of them. They are not the sort to be diverted into political intrigues. Is there anyone else?”
“Do you know the name Zack Nodding?”
“The Goldberg Stanton Asia CEO, who works with Dr. Posey — yes. We keep a dossier on him, too, but there is little in it other than open-source information. He does, of course, have the expertise that we need.”
“He might be willing in principle to help, so he could show the U.S. regulators what a straight arrow he is and maybe get a few extra millions in his annual bonus from Goldberg Stanton.”
“You dislike him.”
Good thing we weren’t playing poker. I had broadcast my feelings. “I wonder if he could manage to pull his head out of his ass for long enough to seriously consider what I’d be telling him.”
Apparently unfamiliar with the image, she looked confused but then broke into a laugh. “If as seems likely you and he should experience a ‘failure to communicate,’ to use the terminology made famous by Cool Hand Luke, Nodding might start chattering in the wrong places. As I asked Ms. Yu to tell you, I assume that not all of the Posey people are kept in the dark about the so-called One-Eight Tractor Factory. By the way, do you know what that number signifies?”
“You tell me.”
“The current Supreme Leader’s birthday, January eighth. That name alone suggests the factory could be very important in Jong-un’s plans. And that would also help to explain why General Ri’s agent killed a British businessman who showed an interest in it.”
“Right. I prefer to leave Nodding out of it, for now. By the way, how does a North Korean spy know about Cool Hand Luke?”
“Kim Jong-il used to invite me often to film-viewing parties in his palace. He had thirty thousand movies in his private collection. That one was among my favorites.”
“Got it. Even my thoroughly married and righteous mother fell in love with Paul Newman.”
* * *
Figuring that there was little more we could do that evening about the bad guys, I moved on to another pressing matter. “You seemed upset when you first came in.”
“You’re a pro at what you do and I have no doubt you’ve seen people killed, maybe killed some yourself.”
“Yes . . . ”
“Would you have been broken up if they’d killed me instead of McLoughridge?”
“Yes. I have developed feelings for you, and there are unmistakable signs that they are mutual.” She laughed. “When I came in and you started hugging me, the insane thought occurred to me that I should borrow a great Mae West line: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?’ That is from another movie that Kim Jong-il showed in his palace. What a hoot!”
It was also a hoot to hear Mi-song with her posh British accent trying to mimic Mae West.
“If you care to resume comforting me now, I have no objection.”
There was no need for her to say more.
When I got around to undressing her, she stopped me. “Can you please turn off all the lights? Showing my breasts embarrasses me. They are not symmetrical. The right is bigger than the left.”
“Who cares? I don’t.”
“It did not bother me until the staff members of the spy school that I attended made me self-conscious. They wanted junior agents to become more glamorous so that we could be sure of seducing espionage targets and potential abductees. When they stripped me and saw these, they told me to go to the Nine One Five Hospital ― that is the same hospital whose surgeons made Jong-un look like my father ― and have them adjusted to be the same size. I did not wish to have surgeons cutting on me as long as I was healthy. If the spy school director had not known I was Kim Il-sung’s daughter they would have forced me to have the surgery.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “When I first met you I thought you were too perfect to be real ― probably had gone under many a plastic surgeon’s knife. Now that I know you’re no Barbie doll, I’m even more mightily smitten. Let’s see those beauties.”
She lifted her bra and let me gaze upon them for a second before replacing it and reaching for the light switch.
“They’re lovely as can be,” I said, and meant it.
* * *
The latest signal of danger, far from interfering with our concentration on lovemaking, seemed only to focus us. At one point I mentally speculated that her training in spycraft had included use of the female body to bring on heart failure in imperialist Americans, puppet South Koreans or, as in my case, a mixture of the two.
I awoke a while later to find her nestled in my arms, gazing at me. “Tell me, how did you come to be called Heck?”
“I grew up in a strict church, went down front at age twelve and got baptized by full immersion. Initially I think I was motivated by a sense of obligation — peer pressure. I was at that age when it was time. But they enrolled me in intensive religious training and soon I really bought into the program. We were supposed to fight against our sinful natures and try to become worthy, now that God had forgiven us in exchange for our belief in Jesus. As I got on with puberty I often promised God in my bedtime prayers that I’d give up a couple of chronic sins. The private sin, to put it in biblically euphemistic terms, was lusting in my heart.”
“Oh, you mean like President Jimmy Carter?”
“Another sin-obsessed Southern Baptist, yes. And my public sin was cussing. When Joe figured out I was trying to avoid strong language, even to the extent of saying ‘heck’ instead of ‘hell,’ he made fun of me and pegged me with the nickname. It stuck.”
She smiled. “So you were a good boy?”
“I tried — stayed a teetotaler all through high school. At the end of senior year when I was getting ready to go off to college, a classmate bet me a fifth of Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey that I’d be drinking by Christmas vacation. He turned out to be right about that — although I’ve always greatly preferred the Kentucky product. I saw him ten years later at a class reunion and made good on the bet.”
“I had some brief encounters with religious people in Switzerland but the exposure did not really take. Did your religious training stay with you?”
“What I’d learned failed me on two main counts. First, taken literally — which was the way I’d been taught to take it — it fell short of providing up-to-date understanding of the cosmos. Second, the higher being it pointed to had a personality disorder that increasingly, as I read the scriptures that defined him, made him a nasty, brutal fellow. Eventually I could no longer believe in him, much less worship or even respect him. But I could see that, for a great many people, that belief system’s rules provided a needed social order in the here and now. And — with its rites of passage and its emphasis on good works — it helped get them, individually, and the larger society through times of crisis. At two out of four it was pretty much a wash. I couldn’t believe, but I didn’t feel I needed to go around carrying a sign telling other people they shouldn’t believe.”
“That all sounds rather theoretical, I must say.”
“OK, I’ll put it another way. Aside from the music and the literary influences — the powerful cadences of the King James version of scripture — only what I still consider the real basics of Jesus’s teachings have stuck with me over the long haul: the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. Oh, and from the Old Testament some of the commandments still resonate, especially Thou Shalt Not Kill.” I paused. “I’m still trying to rationalize what happened with Min.”
“Self-defense. Put it out of your mind.”
“I guess you’re right, but . . . anyhow . . .” I thought of something and chuckled. “In college I developed other non-puritanical behaviors besides drinking. My roommate was the campus distributor of free samples for a cigarette company. Instead of passing them out at parties as he was hired to do, he let me help him smoke up all the samples. The two of us acquired major tobacco habits but saved untold numbers of classmates from doing the same.”
“And did you continue lusting in your heart?” Mi-song mischievously chose that moment to take matters in hand. Becoming aroused again, I sensed I had only a moment or two to finish my story.
“You bet. There was a likewise pious girl I’d been sweet on in high school. She was two years younger. As devout Southern Baptist boys are supposed to do, I had placed her on a pedestal as a chaste prospective wife.”
“How upright of you.” She stroked me and laughed wickedly.
“When I came home after my college freshman year, though, I took her to a drive-in movie and tried to get her to French-kiss. She broke up with me on the spot. ‘Oh, Heck, you’ve changed. You smoke and you drink and you cuss and all you ever think about is sex, and I don’t want to see you anymore.’ ”
“And she stuck with her decision?”
“Yep. And I have to admit, of all the vices she berated me for, the only one I eventually gave up was smoking cigarettes.”
Mi-song laughed. “Don’t ever give up the others.” With her free hand, she ran her fingers through my hair and stroked my face. “Was it in your university days that you grew your braid and whiskers?”
“You’re handsome with or without, but when I saw that you had cut them I admired the sacrifice for your mission. It reminded me of the Chinese nationalists who sliced off their braided queues before they overthrew the Qing Dynasty, early in the twentieth century.”
That’s when she mounted me.
* * *
“You mentioned you’d studied in Switzerland,” I said when conversation resumed. “Is that where you learned your English?”
“Yes, and French, German and Italian as well. It turned out I had a flair for languages.”
“That’s handy for a future spy. Did you graduate from high school in Switzerland?”
“No. I returned to Pyongyang — to Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, which I pointed out to you from the tour bus.”
“Now I remember.”
“It is a highly elite school that prepares youngsters for careers in the military and in the security services that are at the heart of the regime. From there I went to Kim Il-sung University, also in Pyongyang.”
“You stayed in a dorm?”
“I lived at home with the Shin couple through college. But when I enrolled in a post-graduate program at the spy and commando school I was required to move to a campus dormitory. Most of the enrollees at that point had to cut all ties with their families permanently so there would be no danger that they would reveal state secrets. Because of who my father had been I was an exception, permitted to go home on weekends.”
“What mission were they training you for?”
“Broadly, to protect our leader and ensure that eventually, he would rule all of the Korean peninsula without challenge.”
“Really? I’ve often wondered if the top guys in Pyongyang still believe that’s possible. Lots of Western pacifist types claim the leadership is focused purely on defense.”
“The people who trained us argued that we could and would take over the Southern territory one way or another. General Ri put in an appearance and gave the most dramatic — actually, shocking — presentation. He said we had stockpiled enough chemical weapons to wipe out the South Korean population. In his view, taking over the whole peninsula would require killing all of the South Koreans because there was no way they would adapt their ideology to ours.”
“Is that when you started to dislike Ri?”
“He was repulsive. He reminded me of Dr. Strangelove. I had just seen the movie at another viewing party that Kim Jong-il hosted in his palace. Peter Sellers was funny. General Ri is not. In fact, it is hard to find anything to smile about in our military — and especially at the spy school.”
“Were you supposed to take part in the conquest?”
“Yes. You had better stop what you are doing if you care to finish this conversation.”
I rested my hand on her warm haunch. I did want to continue the conversation and find out more about the person who had joined me in an enterprise in which she and I both were risking all. I fervently hoped her abilities were up to what she’d signed on for.
“We trained in a tunnel using a scale model of downtown Seoul with exact replicas of shops, restaurants and bars. That was important not only to commandos who might lead an invasion but also to those of us spies who might be infiltrated into the South for information gathering and subversion.”
“Did they also train you to go against other countries?”
“We were expected to have overseas assignments, too. So that we could blend in, each of us studied a foreign language and culture with a native speaker who had been abducted abroad and brought over to teach us. When General Ri spoke to us he said we must be prepared to wreak havoc on Japan, in particular. Japan became my focus in spy school because they decided that my European languages were already good enough.”
“So spy school was heavy on brain work?”
“Yes, but you cannot imagine how grueling the physical training was. Because I was already a university graduate I did not have to stay for the full six years, but I am stronger than many men.”
I reached across the pillow and felt a bicep. Suitably impressed, I had to kiss her again.
* * *
In the morning I took the train to Shenyang. All the way to and through the airport I watched for possible malefactors — and plastic bags; I’d never be able to view one of those with equanimity again after having heard of McLoughridge’s horrible end. I visualized his face turned purple, his eyes and tongue popped out, as the last flicker of life left him.
On the plane, I relaxed a bit and caught up with the news. It was amazing how much someone stuck in North Korea could miss, even though the rest of the world was hearing daily about North Korea.
The lead story described Pyongyang’s most worrisome provocation to date. An unidentified U.S. government official, flying northwest out of Honolulu in a window seat on a passenger plane, had whipped out his iPhone to photograph a ship that he thought looked suspicious. Anchored in the French Frigate Shoals, an uninhabited atoll designated as a wildlife preserve, the ship when checked turned out to be a trawler that North Korea had used for mid-ocean monitoring of intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
Everyone remembered Pyongyang’s threat to unleash an electromagnetic pulse attack. For Washington pundits, it was but a short step to predicting that the regime was about to make good on that threat, by exploding in the atmosphere near Honolulu a thermonuclear warhead delivered by one of its missiles. An EMP could wipe out unshielded electronics in Hawaii. Modern cars wouldn’t start. Cell phones would go dead and computers kaput. Key military communications would survive, but the damage to the civilian infrastructure would presage a huge problem in the continental United States whenever Kim might get around to targeting farther east.
What the analysts suspected North Korea was contemplating would have seemed an insanely suicidal act — on the order of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, another news item was a reminder that North Korea’s leaders couldn’t be assumed to be free from mental quirks.
A high-level defector recently arrived in Seoul, a former North Korean police general, was quoted as claiming that Kim Jong-il’s December 2011 death on the Number One train had come moments after he’d summoned his aides to report a ghostly appearance by his late father. The second-generation ruler had insisted he’d seen Kim Il-sung standing on the railroad right of way and making the universal crossed-arms gesture for “no entry.” South Korean intelligence before Kim’s death had reported an earlier such ghostly sighting, suggesting it showed a deterioration of the ruler’s mental faculties. The police general’s account was the first indication that a second sighting had triggered the heart attack that killed the Dear Leader.
Meanwhile, the war in Honduras was still uncompleted, and other irate Latin American countries threatened complications. Although talk in Washington of launching a preventive attack on North Korea intensified, officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere in official Washington worried that an immediate and vigorous response to Kim’s provocations would risk opening a second, much bigger war front halfway around the world.
Old differences of opinion in the U.S. had not been fully resolved following the failure of the peace process. One op-ed item that I read returned to the debate among North Korea specialists about whether Kim Jong-un was a closeted reformer trying to out himself in a big way. Reverend Bob’s sweet-tempered board member John Hyon argued that the U.S. president ought to have persisted in negotiations despite difficulties. Hyon wrote that all Kim needed was a peace treaty and withdrawal of U.S. troops to make him feel secure enough to turn North Korea into the newest Asian economic tiger.
Iran, also, was back in the news. According to a background analysis piece, the Iranian in the street wanted to put struggles in the past and focus on living well. A faction of the powerful Revolutionary Guard, on the other hand, wanted to struggle further against the Great Satan.
* * *
I met Helmut in the Kowloon bar and brought him up to date, leaving out only the part about possible weapons manufacture at the university. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, the connection might be. Besides, the problem I had come to pose to him seemed sufficiently intractable on its own.
Helmut racked his formidable brain and came up with no ideas on how Kim and company might have enlisted financial industry people willing to carry out the CDS scheme. “Bankers would know full well they risked ruining their banks and going to prison.”
What proved easier for him was giving me the basic concept of a counter-scheme. “Markets move on news developments. Bad guys often try to manipulate prices by manipulating the media, and that’s the sort of scheme we think is involved here. The way to stop them is to fight news with news. There are at least three problems: knowing when they’re going to try unleashing a particular story on the market, coming up with a story that counters theirs and, finally, getting the counter-story out so that major market players will see it in time to act.”
“Makes sense, Helmut, with one caveat from a news purist who’s working for an ethical outfit. Even for the purpose of bringing down bad guys, we wouldn’t be able to justify joining them in using the news media to fool investors. What we need is not just any old story that counters theirs but an accurate, true story that counters theirs. But I don’t see how we can get a true story, one fit for engineering a twist like that, without being on the inside of their conspiracy.”
“It might work if you stayed in North Korea for a while longer and learned the details of their plans. But since they’ve already tried to kill you three times, you might well prefer not to. Joe was the bloodhound, after all.”
I let Helmut’s comment pass. I knew where he was coming from, but I was on an adrenaline and testosterone high.
We went through various scenarios of how things might work out. Helmut tended to think the North Koreans’ scheme was flawed and would be discovered. The swaps traders were likely to figure out they were being used. They might blow the whistle to protect their own hides. But then again, that might not happen if the traders’ bank management was consciously part of the scheme and able to manage the huge risks it involved.
Vague as our conclusions were, the session had made the trip worthwhile. At least I had a clearer idea of what our goals should be.
* * *
When I got to my hotel I phoned to give Evelyn an update. She sounded strange when she answered.
“Sorry to call so late. Didn’t have phone access earlier but tonight I’m in Hong Kong on a quick weekend trip. Everything OK with you?”
“No,” she gasped, sounding as if she could burst into tears at any moment.
“Uh oh. Is that insurance investigator — Hashimoto? — bothering you again?”
“Yes,” she whispered. After a moment she pulled herself together and explained. “He says unless new evidence turns up before a week from Monday the insurance company will determine that Joe committed suicide.”
“What’s Hashimoto basing this on?”
“Joe had gone to Panmunjom on assignment earlier from the southern side. Hashimoto learned about that and went to interview the public affairs officer, Major Player. He found out that media visitors always stop at Camp Bonifas and hear the same lecture mentioning the Soviet diplomatic trainee who ran across in 1984.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Hashimoto is arguing that Joe would have known, from hearing the lecture, that the North Koreans would definitely shoot at him if he ran.”
“And that’s supposed to make his run a suicide?”
“That’s Hashimoto’s theory. Grady Edwards, who’s advising me, says there’s a line of legal thinking that permits the suicide clause to be triggered if the deceased did something that had a high probability of causing his death — even if he didn’t intend to kill or injure himself.”
I knew Grady, a lawyer with an American firm’s Tokyo office. “You mean negligence?”
“Something like that but with closer awareness of the danger than in the usual negligence case, it seems. Grady says two behaviors that meet the test under that theory are playing Russian roulette and shooting at police who have come to arrest you.”
“Would the insurance company’s ruling be final?”
“Grady says we could sue the insurance company, asking the Hong Kong courts to determine it wasn’t suicide and order the company to pay up. It seems courts usually aren’t satisfied there’s been a suicide without knowing the motive.”
“And what does this Hashimoto slime-ball claim is the motive?”
“His theory is that Joe was a closet alcoholic, deeply depressed; impending fatherhood drove him to desperation.”
“Alcoholic! Where’s he get off with that?”
“You know Mandy Willins at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club? The P.R. woman pretending to be a journalist who ran against him for vice-president and has had it in for him ever since he won?”
“Yeah. Mandy’s obsessed with club politics. She should get a job that leaves her less spare time to assemble factions and foment conspiracies.”
“Hashimoto took a deposition from her, and she painted a dark picture of Joe’s drinking. The way she described him, he was a veritable wino whose behavior was a grave embarrassment to the club.”
“She’s the embarrassment.”
“I don’t know if you noticed on the night of the memorial gathering, but when Joe’s parents and I were leaving I saw her lurking around at the edge of the crowd. In her deposition, she testified that you sang two of Joe’s favorite songs from your repertoire, ‘Duncan and Brady’ and the other one that’s also about someone getting shot to death.”
“‘Louis Collins.’ I saved those two for after you’d left.”
“Thank you for that. I wasn’t ready to hear those again yet, especially that line about angels handling the body.” She paused, probably to compose herself. “But now Hashimoto is using Mandy’s testimony about the songs to argue that Joe had dreamed of dying in a hail of bullets.”
“Why, the goddamned bitch! Listen, I’m working on getting proof that Joe had reason to run. I don’t have the goods at this point, though. Is there any way to make the insurance company hold off on its determination?”
“Well, I’ll work as fast as I can. Let’s hope we get a break soon.”
* * *
In the morning I met Langan Meyer. “Lang, I’ve decided to leave you with just a quick oral report. First, Joe didn’t commit suicide. I can’t prove that yet — and if you’ve been talking with Evelyn you know time is of the essence. Second, Joe was headed in the right direction. Third, the case may involve more complications than even he imagined.”
“Sounds like you’re making progress. Why don’t you want to tell me more?”
“If I did, you’d have to agonize over whether you should run with what I already know. Just take it from me: I need you to sit on it while I let this develop. In due course, I hope to be able to offer you a big story.”
“I can’t squeeze the information out of you.” He looked resigned.
“I’ll tell you this: I’m getting material from a high-ranking North Korean source who needs to be anonymous, for now. I’ve written that person’s details here, in this sealed envelope. Please lock it up and open it only when you need to, if and when the story comes in.”
“Watch your step.”
Lang’s concern was contagious. Lulled by the civilized comforts of Hong Kong, I’d been slow to notice an ebbing of my bravado. When I came out of the restaurant, I looked around to see if anyone might be following me.
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
Next week: Part 8 – Intruder in Dandong
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