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.

Part one of Nuclear Blues 

Chapter 4: Pay High Tribute

I took a seat in the back of our tour bus and we set out. First stop in Pyongyang en route to our hotel was a pair of enormous bronze statues depicting Kim Il-sung, the president – he had kept the title despite his death in 1994 – and his son, Kim Jong-il, who’d ruled from then until his own death in 2011.

The chief guide, a spindly fellow whose name was Won, came back to me wearing a serious expression and carrying a basket, approximately a bushel in capacity, that contained an elaborate arrangement of fresh flowers. A great honor was in store for me, he told me. I would be the tour group’s representative in presenting this basket to the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, as Kim the First and Kim the Second were known, respectively. I should watch through the window while the representative of the group just ahead of us made his presentation. That way I would learn the procedure. After he had spoken, Won looked at me anxiously. I guess he worried that I’d refuse.

“To what do I owe this unexpected request?” I asked, doing my best to hide the horror that almost any American would feel – magnified by my family’s quite serious grudge against the regime.

“Booking agent Lee told us that although you are an American and thus our enemy you are a ‘gentleman with good manners’ who will know how to show proper respect,” Won said, in correct but heavily accented English.

I pondered his reply for a second or two. Had I really fooled that piece of work, Barbara Lee? Or was this her cunning plan to punish me further for whatever pissed her off about me? In either case, refusing could attract unwanted attention and make it harder to carry out my mission. I was trapped.

“All right,” I said, clenching my teeth but taking care not to reveal any more obvious sign of displeasure. We all alighted from the bus and the other tour members assembled behind me. We marched up to the platform where the statues stood. I bowed as my predecessor had done. I placed the flower basket against the platform, amid too many identical baskets to count. The flowers, and the bronze of the seventy-some-foot statues, made a brilliant contrast with the drab, lowering sky.

When I returned to my seat on the bus the female guide, Shin Mi-song, was in the next seat. She thanked me. “We sometimes have a problem finding someone willing to do that, and occasionally the person we ask even creates a scene. It happened just the other day. One of your fellow Americans poked fun at our Great Leader Kim Il-sung: ‘He does have a Great Belly.’ That hurt our feelings.”

“Not the fellow who got shot running across the border?” I had no trouble imagining Joe speaking the words she’d quoted.

Several of the reporters sitting in that section of the bus had cocked their ears. They started taking notes as she replied.

“Yes. He was on our tour. I am sorry to have to report that he started off on the wrong foot here by offending our Highest Dignity.”

Close up, she was not just pretty but drop-dead gorgeous – perfect, as far as I could tell, like a supermodel or one of those beauty contestants the Venezuelans groom from before puberty to become Miss Universe. I preferred women flawed at least sufficiently to show they were real – although I could imagine altering my standards if those moist, red lips of hers should ever pucker for me.

Her black dress was identical to the one she’d worn at the DMZ. Close up, the diamonds and gold of her necklace and watch looked real enough to my untutored eye but could have been good fakes. On her left breast she wore an enameled, gold-bordered pin bearing a portrait of Kim Il-sung. She spoke Oxbridge English as flawless as her looks. I wondered where she could have learned it. Maybe she was a diplomat’s daughter?

I wanted to ask her about Joe, but I thought I’d better get the lay of the land before taking a chance on how far I could go with my questioning. I merely asked, “You say it hurts your feelings when foreigners make fun of President Kim?”

“We all love him as our parent. He led the victorious fight against the Japanese colonialists. He founded the DPRK. And he always showed such concern for the people. He used to crisscross the country on inspection tours to make sure the officials were doing their jobs and find out if the people were happy. While he was alive, a great many of our countrymen had the privilege of being in his presence.”

“What about you? Did you have a chance to meet him?”

“I was an orphan. The Great Leader came to my village and asked how many of us had lost our parents. He gathered us and told us we could go to orphans’ school, or not — it would be our decision. I was happy to go. At New Year’s he visited us and said, ‘You have no parents, so please think of me as your father.’ And that is the way I have always thought of him. He said he would make sure we were treated as his own children.” Her eyes glistened as she pointed. “We are passing the school now.”

Turning to look out the bus window, I saw a gated compound. I could read the Korean inscription on the gate: Mangyongdae Revolutionary School. I considered what Ms. Shin had just said. Stilted as her wording had been, I thought I detected sincere affection and respect in her references to the founding leader.

The bus came to a stop in another parking lot and we stepped off to view the Kim ancestral home, a theme-park reconstruction of a mud-walled farmhouse with a thatched roof. Hundreds of North Koreans were lined up to walk past for viewing. Our guides insisted we break in at the head of the line.

“That American the other day also had some choice comments about this place,” said Ms. Shin, who was walking with the German and Australian reporters and me. “It reminded him of a cross between the manger in Bethlehem and Abe Lincoln’s log cabin.”

Resisting the urge to smile, I wondered whether she wasn’t taking a risk by talking so frankly to us. A tour guide couldn’t rank very high in the Pyongyang pecking order. Wasn’t she likely to get in trouble with the authorities for repeating remarks disrespectful of the regime?

The country’s hall-of-mirrors atmosphere was getting to me already, and my imagination immediately leapt to a different interpretation: I wondered whether the authorities had assigned her to quote Joe to the journalists in our tour group, as part of an effort to spin the events of his visit. More ominously, was she trying to provoke us to spout disrespectful remarks of our own so we could be arrested and punished with prison terms or worse? Was chief guide Won in on it, too, his request that I present the flowers calculated to shock me into saying something they could punish me for? After all, with Washington reportedly moving closer to a decision on a preventive strike, the North Koreans might see some advantage in taking new American hostages.

Sooner or later my fellow journalists were sure to steer the topic back to Joe. I determined that I would keep my own mouth shut but listen carefully to whatever else Shin Mi-song or any of the other guides might say about him — anything that might help me get to the bottom of whatever had sent him across the border to his death. Had my friend, never a guy to hold his tongue, finally made one too many choice comments?

Further surprises awaited at the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, where our group was billeted. The driveway and the sides of the street were lined with expensive, chauffeur-driven European sedans — Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Jaguars, even a Maybach and a couple of Rolls Royces — all black, all apparently brand new, their motors idling as if the country had never heard of an energy shortage.

The hotel lobby swarmed with prosperous-looking Asians whose lapel pins, picturing members of the ruling dynasty, tagged them as North Koreans. Carrying shopping bags, they competed for the clerks’ attention at stalls selling brand-name European luxury goods: cognac and other high-end booze, watches, jewelry, handbags, neckties and scarves. The prices were denominated in euros.

I found myself thinking back on our Mississippi church’s youth pastor, who’d been fond of reciting Matthew 19:24. That’s the verse that says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Of course I’d eventually realized that it wasn’t the wealth itself that was to be seen as objectionable. Back when I’d met him, Reverend Bob, like every other young preacher, had been learning how to engineer wealth transfers from the corporeal kingdom to the spiritual. The biblical injunction to tithe was a major theme in our church.

Still, no doubt Reverend Bob’s eye-of-the needle teachings had stayed with me, and played a part in my lack of enthusiasm for photographing self-regarding CEOs. But there was no way I could have stayed in Asia for so many years without seeing my bias worn down. The new rich and middle classes kept finding more and more resources they could use to ape their potentates in epic conspicuous consumption.

There were worse sins, I’d often reminded myself. Still, from what I had read, this was not supposed to be happening in Pyongyang. After the collapse of the denuclearization process, Washington had worked to round up international support for restoring the policy of “maximum pressure” — largely through sanctions — that the U.S. president had credited with bringing Kim to the negotiating table earlier. One of the main United Nations sanctions was a ban on exporting to North Korea the luxury goods the Kims loved so much that they had let people go hungry while the rulers and their henchmen bought more and more trinkets and baubles. Now there’s a sin, I thought.

In an antiseptic-looking white-painted hall full of round dining tables we helped ourselves to a buffet offering a hybrid Western-Korean menu, including blandly seasoned mystery meat patties and a radish-and-water kimchi. Showing consideration for visitors unfamiliar with the normally pungent pickled vegetable dish, the chef had gone easy on the garlic and chili.

Presiding over the room were large portraits of the three generations of fleshy rulers, the current one portrayed as looking pretty much interchangeable with his grandpa. After eating, I strolled down the hall and looked through the hotel bookshop. Any wall space not covered with brightly colored propaganda posters was lined with shelves offering a selection of books and pamphlets. Most of those, like the stories in the newspapers and magazines on the plane, glorified members of the ruling family — particularly Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il but with a scattering also of recently published works about the current DPRK Supreme Leader, Workers’ Party Chairman and Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un.

Back in the lobby I took a good look around and noticed, off to the side, something I had missed seeing earlier: a blue cloth banner hanging over a couple of desks. The banner’s message was spelled out only in English, in gold letters. The larger letters above read: “Welcome Johnny Posey Evangelistic Mission Board.” The smaller letters beneath those read: “ ‘Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him and they also which pierced him.’ – Revelation 1:7.”

The mission board for decades had handled arrangements for the most famous contemporary evangelist to preach to multitudes all over the world. A centenarian now, Johnny Posey lived in retirement awaiting his entrance into Heaven while his son Robert used the organization to handle not only preaching but also good works. It distributed food and medical aid to poor countries, on such a vast scale that the mission board operated its own fleet of cargo ships. Hardly a month went by without my encountering Robert Posey’s name in the news.

I looked around hopefully for Robert Posey, the same preacher I’d just been thinking of, the one Joe and I had called Reverend Bob during the time early in his career that he’d spent as youth pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Gulf Springs. Sure enough, I saw beneath the banner the familiar face and figure of our old Sword Drill coach, standing at least a head taller than the other necktie-wearing men who surrounded him. He had aged a lot. He was considerably thinner and looked haggard. His eyes were sunken.

Initially I was surprised that Posey organization members had come to town. But then I remembered they’d worked with both the eldest Kim and the middle Kim, on some highly publicized visits to North Korea by Johnny Posey and also on aid shipments. Still, I sensed a jarring contrast between the sober and earnest atmosphere in the corner they occupied and the shopping-mall feel elsewhere in the lobby.

Until that point I hadn’t stopped for long enough to digest what I’d been going through, hadn’t realized the extent to which I’d been on edge. That may help to explain why I felt considerable relief when I encountered Reverend Bob. It settled my nerves to see on his face that familiar expression combining kindliness and self-assurance.

As heir to the Johnny Posey empire, he’d certainly risen in the world — I’d read that he pulled down more than a million dollars in annual compensation for running the mission board. He had much more on his plate than just guiding a few dozen teenagers into pious adulthood, and I’d long since moved away from the fundamentalist doctrines he’d taught me. Still, when I looked at him I saw the same man I’d turned to for wisdom in my youth.

I wondered what had brought him to North Korea this time. My understanding was that no real churches were permitted in the country — just a handful of congregations faked up by the regime to show off to any visiting foreigners who might ask on Sundays to go to services. There was no limit on North Koreans’ worship as long as it was the Kims they worshipped. The authorities had permitted Johnny Posey to preach to a stadium full of locals some years before. No doubt that had been a carefully screened congregation of party members unlikely to be swept away by the Holy Spirit.

Six foot six and athletic enough to have been a standout in local church league basketball, Reverend Bob was a macho man who’d never considered a whole-leaf tobacco smoking habit a serious sin. At church youth camp he would come around at night to enforce curfew. We could smell him before we heard him. When I spotted him that evening in the Koryo Hotel lobby he was puffing on a baby-shit-green cigar. Cuba was one of the few countries that still claimed fraternal partnership with North Korea in what was left of the international communist community. Havanas were among the luxury items for sale in the hotel lobby stalls.

I caught his eye. Recognizing me, he flashed that sincere and incandescent grin of welcome that had encouraged many as they walked down the aisle to confess their sins and accept salvation. Breaking off a conversation, he strode over and hugged me. “You stayin’ outta trouble, Heck?”

The four-inch height difference was enough that I found my nose pressed against his smoke-permeated suit lapel. I’d always liked the smell and its associations with comfort and help. “Reverend Bob, you’ve lost weight but you sure haven’t gotten any shorter,” I said as I hugged him back. I pointed to the banner and added, “You didn’t include the end of the verse: ‘and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.’ ”

His grin grew even wider. “You got that right,” he said, coughing and covering his mouth with a handkerchief he’d whipped from a trousers pocket. Then he looked at me appraisingly and said, “I guess you’re with a tour.”

“Yep. Just got in today.”

He hugged me again, dragging me over to the clump of worthies and introducing me all around. He started with the Reverend John Hyon, a Korean-American cleric with a gentle, sweet expression, his hair starting to gray at the temples. If he’d replaced his suit jacket with a cardigan, Hyon could have starred in a children’s TV show as an Asian-American Mister Rogers.

I recognized Hyon’s name. He had a moderately high news media profile for lobbying in favor of U.S. diplomatic talks with Pyongyang, opposing Washington’s prevailing hard line. He took a few moments to chat about how the two of of us separately had come to know Reverend Bob. Then he excused himself to resume a conversation with a North Korean.

Next up was United States Senator Fred Macon, a star of the tea party movement and its ideological offspring. The senator, a friendly African-American with a chocolate complexion, round, bespectacled face and unpretentious regular-guy manner, wore a suit that looked like he’d slept in it all the way from Dulles Airport. In person he didn’t come across as being as extreme in his views as his television persona suggested. “What are your impressions of North Korea so far?” he asked me.

“Too soon to say.”

He nodded approvingly — apparently he liked my unwillingness to jump to conclusions. In return, I liked his curiosity; unlike many politicians, he hadn’t decided he knew it all already. I thought I detected in Macon a basic honesty.

And then there was Zack Nodding, Asia regional boss of Goldberg Stanton, the investment mega-bank. All he said was, “Hello,” but he managed to make that sound unpleasant. Compensating for his tinny voice, he asserted his masculinity by giving me a bone-crunching handshake — he didn’t change his neutral expression one iota when I grimaced. He handed me his business card, which identified him as Zacchaeus J. Nodding. I wondered if that J stood for Jerk.

Short and muscular like Joe, his face and hands deeply tanned, Nodding was all sharp edges from the nose and jaw right down through the hand-tailored, precisely pressed pinstriped suit, blue-and-white striped shirt with starched white collar and Armani necktie — identical to a tie I’d seen at a lobby sales booth. He smelled of aftershave, the aroma so faint and unobjectionable that it had to be expensive. His banker wingtips were as highly polished as the fancy cars outside.

“Heck here, along with Joe Hammond, was one of my early souls, like you,” Reverend Bob told Nodding while pulling from a jacket pocket a heavily worn volume bound in soft, dark brown leather.

“Yeah, you’ve told me.” Nodding didn’t smile.

Robert Posey’s Souls Ledger, read the embossed silver gothic lettering on the book’s cover. Extracting reading glasses from another pocket, Reverend Bob leafed through the gilt-edged onionskin pages at the beginning of the ledger until he found a one-line entry in his compact and tidy, copperplate-derived handwriting. He showed the entry to me with a triumphant grin and then read it aloud: “Festus Park Davis, July 18, 1988, Calvary Church Summer Youth Retreat: rededication to Christ.”

Man, he was pulling up stuff from half a world away and decades before. I’d long since decided as a matter of principle to be up front about my problems with the theology I’d been brought up to believe in. This time, though, in the presence of Reverend Bob, I just grinned. Seeing that he took such pride in our once-upon-a-time spiritual connection, I didn’t want to disappoint him or make him lose face among his colleagues. Besides, on this trip I was resolved not to rock any boats. I was here for information.

I didn’t have to suffer the spotlight for long. Some North Koreans came up, smelling of the garlic they’d just consumed with supper, and changed the subject, consulting with Reverend Bob and Zack and John about their appointments for the following day.

The group began to disperse and Reverend Bob turned back to me. “Come up to my room, Heck,” he said. “You and I got a lotta catchin’ up to do.”

As we rode an escalator up to the elevator bank on the mezzanine, he coughed and then said, almost whispering, “I saw you on CNN when Joe was killed — so tragic — but we’d better not get into that subject tonight. Rooms here are bugged, probably other parts of the hotel as well.”

That required me to contemplate the bad ways in which my “tour” might end if I didn’t watch myself. I felt my heart rate increase.

Fishing his room key out of a pocket as we stepped off the escalator, he resumed speaking in a normal voice. “Last time I was in Gulf Springs your folks told me you were leading a blues band in Tokyo. I guess things were pointing in that direction back toward the end of your high school senior year when you bought the motorcycle, camera and tape recorder and started spending weekends and vacation time following that black musician around the Delta — what was his name?”

“Fatback Hawkins.” I affected blandness as I spoke the name of the legendary bluesman, who had worked with Muddy Waters. I remembered Reverend Bob registering mild but definite disapproval of the friendship that had developed after Fatback’s return from Chicago to his Mississippi crossroads home. The reverend had feared that spending time in low dives listening to suggestive blues lyrics would endanger my immortal soul.

I’d listened politely to that advice and gone on doing what I wanted to do. Fatback had taught me a great deal — not all of it, of course, the sort of knowledge I’d want to boast of to a man of the cloth who, likewise, had taught me a lot. After all, it had taken not only musical talent but also street smarts for Fatback to survive decades of playing all night in Mississippi juke joints and Chicago clubs.

“My Tokyo band started off with mostly blues, but we’ve gradually branched out. Now I use the term ‘American roots music.’ ’’ I reached into a pocket and handed him an unmarked, paper-jacketed disc. “Here’s a CD we cut last month. I managed to get through airport customs without giving it up. You might want to play it some time, get an idea of what we’re up to. We do rock, country, soul, spirituals, gospel, the occasional Dixieland. You’ll recognize one song I adapted from that old-timey Broadman Hymnal we used to pull out of storage at Calvary for revivals and youth retreats.”

He smiled. “Thank you. I’ll listen to it, for sure.” Ushering me into his room he said, “Let’s kneel now.” Down on the floor we both went and Reverend Bob held both my hands. He closed his eyes and, after one muffled cough, prayed aloud, “Lord, we rejoice in renewed fellowship and ask your blessings on Heck, who gladdens souls by praising your everlasting glorious name with the hymns of old. Grant him the faith to accept totally and act upon single-mindedly your eternal word as unerringly recorded in the scriptures. In the holy name of your only begotten son Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.”

He was the one who changed the subject, as we stood up. “I imagine you’re wondering what I’m doing in North Korea,” he said.

“I sure am, although I do recall there’s been some family involvement over here.”

“Yes, Daddy’s visits started in the nineteen nineties. Over the years since, we’ve quietly built on the contacts we made then with the first and second generation leaders. Two of the fellows you just met, John Hyon and Zack Nodding, have been the point men for us, keeping up relations with key DPRK officials. Several years ago Kim Jong-un agreed we could start a university in the northwestern part of the country. We did a lot of planning and preparation, built a rudimentary campus without any fanfare and populated it with a wonderful bunch of students.”

“How about your teachers?”

“Around that point we encountered a serious problem. The State Department ruled against letting U.S. citizens use their passports to travel to North Korea. We wanted American professors who could teach in English.”

“How’d you handle that?”

“We put the admitted students to work prettifying the grounds and waited for Washington to change course so we could bring in our teachers. Once State’s ruling was withdrawn, we assembled the faculty and started teaching. Our board flew in last week to compare notes with the North Korean authorities as we prepare for the first full-length academic year. University is a fancy name for what we have at this point — it’s a very small college, really — but it’s developing nicely.”

“I missed hearing about all that, somehow.”

“There hasn’t been much news coverage about it so far. The North Koreans haven’t wanted us to make a big deal out of it in the media. I try to honor their request, make it a point not to speak on the record about it.”

I reached down and rubbed my right knee, which throbbed a bit from the unaccustomed spell of prayerful kneeling. “Now that you mention it, I did read something about a Christian-sponsored university here, but I thought it was in the capital.”

“Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. That’s a different story, the high-profile one. Over there, they aren’t allowed to teach or preach the Gospel.”

“And you’re allowed to do that at your university? Amazing. I thought the regime was dead set against Christianity.”

“Maybe the Lord has touched someone’s heart.” He grinned conspiratorially, coughed and then continued talking. “More practically, there’s a solid tradeoff for them. Whenever the regime decides to publicize what they’re letting us do, it can help deal with human rights criticisms — the religious freedom issue. A lot of the students they’re letting us take in are from families suspected of being secret Christians.”

He pointed at the ceiling to remind me of the bugging as an explanation for the vagueness of what he was about to add. “I’m not in a position to say whether some of them had been punished for their supposed beliefs before this change of policy — or would be undergoing punishment now, if not for the new policy.”

“So they’re turning the religious dissidents over to you? Aren’t they afraid you’ll train evangelists who’ll head out to preach and convert a third of the population?”

“They don’t seem to have insurmountable worries on that account. North Koreans need special permission from the authorities to move around from place to place. For the time being, those assigned to our university can’t move out of the local community. As for the non-Christian North Korean officials living there, policemen and so on, they’re considered solidly loyal to the regime. The authorities in Pyongyang don’t seem to worry they’d switch sides. But at least our students can practice their beliefs openly while they’re on campus. For us, I can tell you, it’s a joy to be in a position to nourish the hungry minds and souls in our flock.”

“I bet it is. I’ve occasionally thought I’d like to try my hand at teaching.”

“You’d be a fine teacher, Heck. I remember how well you did as youth minister of music during Youth Week.” He stopped to cough twice. “I also remember when you used to sing and play your guitar at retreats. Although at other times you showed what I’d call a mild case of introversion, music dealt with that in a marvelous way. You didn’t have to ask more than once for everybody to sing along. Performing, and caring enough about it to make sure you get through to your audience — that’s a lot of what teaching, like preaching, is all about.”

“Reverend Bob, why does your praise always make me want to say, ‘Aw, shucks’? Anyhow, I especially appreciate it, coming as it does from one of the world’s top practitioners of getting the word out.”

He grinned.

“Here’s another question for you. How are you paying for your university?”

“We trusted from the beginning that the Lord would provide. And because the Lord helps those who help themselves, we campaign for contributions. We get support from churches. Quite a few of them, especially in the U.S. and South Korea, have been taking up a special annual offering ever since we started the planning process. Calvary’s one of those.”

“Your voice is sounding a bit ragged,” I said. “Hope your health is OK.”

“Just a touch of bronchitis, occupational hazard for a preacher trying to reach out to every last soul while there’s still time. Based on all the signs, it’s becoming clearer day by day that the process leading up to Christ’s return is under way. Each of us needs to prepare.” He settled a gaze on me, but he didn’t press me on what I thought about his argument. “There’s also jet lag. I wear quite a few hats, have to fly back and forth a lot. But thanks for asking.”

He looked at his watch and coughed. “I have another visitor coming in just a few minutes and need to get some things ready, so I’m afraid we’ll have to continue this talk another time. Thanks so much for coming by, Heck. Give my love to your folks when you speak to them, and don’t hesitate to holler if there’s anything at all I can do for you.”

As I let myself out I was thinking that the reverend was still quite a guy.

Looking down the hall, I saw the vague form of a man in a suit standing in a doorway, facing my way. In the semi-darkness of the corridor the glow of an exit sign reflected on his gold-bordered portrait pin, lighting up the man’s face enough for me to see the East Asian features. Moving past him with caution I wondered what he was doing there. Surveillance? Or waiting to meet Reverend Bob?

I went to the hotel’s front door with the idea I might slip out for a stroll in the downtown area. The youngest of our guides, who’d been lurking nearby, intercepted me and told me that wasn’t in the cards. I’d known we’d be on short leashes. Still, by the time I got to my room the reaction to being back in the strange country, added to the tension resulting from my particular situation, had me fit to be tied.

I poured a stiff bourbon from the duty-free bottle I’d bought at the airport in Beijing and downed it. As I poured another, I turned on the television — Chinese made, I could see by the trademark — to catch the North Korean evening news. It was a good thing I’d fortified myself.

A middle-aged female anchor with a stagey, sing-song voice announced in a tone of operatically awestruck reverence that the huge Pyongyang statues of the first two Kim rulers — the statues we’d visited that afternoon — were receiving foreign admirers in record numbers. I cringed. It got worse. A camera zoomed in on a shot of the statues to show none other than yours truly, bowing after placing the floral tribute. “This visiting American pictured today,” the anchor intoned, “is just one of the multitudes traveling from benighted countries around the world, humbly seeking enlightenment, hardly able to wait for their turns to pay high tribute to the peerlessly great men.”

“Shit!” I gave the TV power button a vicious kick. I undressed, turned off the light and tried to sleep — but now I’d added another worry to my inventory. Had invisible monitors watched or listened as I’d lost my cool, and would they make me pay for it?

Chapter 5: Profound Vision of a Great Man

By the time we boarded the bus the following day I’d calmed down — sufficiently, I hoped, to have a shot at succeeding in what I’d come for. I knew we weren’t going to get quality time with North Koreans other than our traveling tour guides and the individual site guides. What I needed to do was grasp whatever hints any of those might offer regarding Joe’s fate, and then probe for more.

Our hosts at each site obliged, to some extent, by getting in digs at Joe and his behavior during his visit. My fellow journalists asked follow-up questions, so I didn’t need to show myself as the solitary tour-group member obsessed with what had happened to Joe.

But I resumed stewing as I looked at the ridiculous sights we were being shown. The Arch of Triumph, for example, a slightly larger near-replica of the Paris original, commemorated Kim Il-sung’s 1945 return to Korea after he’d purportedly routed the Japanese colonialists. Mama had made sure I’d never forget it was in fact the Americans and their allies, not Kim, who’d ended the decades of Japanese rule over the Korean peninsula.

The real tourists snapping away for their Facebook and Instagram postings were OK with the monuments. The journalists were already grumbling, much as Joe would’ve done. They wanted to see how the economy was faring, look for signs of policy changes. “Can’t we visit one of the markets where private merchants peddle their wares?” “How about a stop at your computer center?” “Can we meet a high-ranking economic official?”

Hearing such questions, sometimes the other guides looked at Shin Mi-song — who’d replaced the previous day’s black dress with a gray one. I was getting the impression they deferred to her, although Won was officially the lead guide and she looked younger than two of the three male guides. If she was the de facto boss of the group, maybe she was the one who had arranged my humiliation the previous day.

She presented a problem: From what I’d heard so far, she seemed to have more information about Joe than the others. But if she was in a position of authority she might well be the last to help me get to the bottom of his case — and, if I pushed her for answers, the first to sniff me out and report me.

When Shin failed to respond to his questioning look, the chief guide spoke. “We must stick to the itinerary.” The only exception was not a real exception. We stopped at an old, multi-story department store that happened to be on our route. It was almost devoid of customers. I had read that such establishments were mainly for show. Supposedly Pyongyang now had a newer store that had impressed some recent visitors as being more like the real thing. Still, most of the country’s actual commerce in consumer goods was said to take place privately in the jangmadang — the markets that we weren’t seeing.

There was little to tempt us in the drab old store. Much of one floor offered displays of cheap plastic household goods such as buckets and basins. Even avid shoppers in our group found nothing to interest them in the jewelry, footwear and ready-to-wear clothing departments, much less the electrical goods department. In a top-floor tailor shop, though, several of us — journalists all — did get measured for Mao suits, which North Koreans referred to as “people’s clothing.” The style had received a fashion boost from the third-generation leader, who, copying his late grandfather, wore such an outfit for many public appearances. I chose a dark blue fabric, figuring I could always use another stage costume.

We returned to ready-to-wear for just long enough to buy matching Lenin caps so we could truly unite in emulating the working masses. We would drop by in our bus, en route to the airport on our last day, to pick up the finished garments.

That afternoon we headed north on a deserted highway past treeless mountains. I asked Won where the trees had gone. The question seemed to fluster him. He replied only that we happened to have entered a national forest following a timber harvest. Before I could follow up, one of the tourists asked about itinerary details. That treeless panorama continued to fill the bus windows for a couple of hours, the bleak landscape enlivened only by the occasional farming village. Finally we reached a forested area surrounding the resort hotel where we would spend the night before seeing another monument to the leaders.

The journalists had all brought duty-free alcohol, figuring that among other uses it would be handy for smoothing relations with the North Koreans. Before supper, at lobby tables adjoining the bar in the resort hotel, we tried softening up the guides with our booze.

Shin Mi-song declined a drink. Saying she had some business to take care of, she left us. I worried that there might not be many more opportunities before our departure to pump her for information about Joe.

At least we made some progress with the men. Won told us he and the other guides were Pyongyang natives. Also we noticed that the three men were tall for North Koreans. Both factors were clues that they had enjoyed better-than-average nutrition. Those of us who had read about the North Korean class system could start with an assumption that the guides were members of the “loyal” class. Otherwise they wouldn’t be permitted to live in the capital, whose citizens got preference in supplies of food and other goods — and they certainly wouldn’t be trusted to guide Westerners.

Despite that relatively privileged background, I’d noticed — starting with our handshake the first day — that Won was as frail and weak as an arthritic old man. After several glasses of Scotch, he spoke with apparent frankness about the famine of the nineteen nineties. According to outside estimates, hundreds of thousands of people had died.

“What was your family’s experience during the hard times?” the German reporter asked him.

Won, like his colleagues, had a cigarette burning. He blew smoke from his nostrils before answering. “During the Arduous March — the March of Tribulation — we didn’t have enough to eat,” he said. “The factories weren’t operating, so we couldn’t get new clothing when our old clothes wore out.”

“Why weren’t the factories running?”

“Everything went wrong at the same time. There was no fuel, no power, no water.”

Speaking of those hard times made his features sag — and what he said touched me. I’d never had any use for the regime, having read enough to know that its misrule was the basic cause of the country’s troubles. But Won’s words reminded me that those North Koreans outside the inner circle, the ones who had done the actual suffering, deserved sympathy.

“Things have improved,” he said. “I have enough food to eat now. We have water for several hours a day and there’s enough electricity. In my apartment I have a television and a refrigerator and a computer and a tape recorder.” I hoped there was some truth to his dutiful spin.

One of the journalists asked Won to tell us his opinion of the work of the late Dear Leader and, now, the Respected Marshal in running the state and its economy. “What do you think of those leaders’ visions for the country? How do you evaluate their competence in pursuing their visions?”

We all knew that the double-barreled question put him on the spot. The predictable response would have been to revert to the sort of lines we’d been hearing at every monumental stop along our way, about the greatness of the leaders and the perfection of the system they had built. I, for one, was not prepared for his actual non-answer — or for the evident agitation that propelled it.

He gasped audibly. “How can you ask me such a question? How could I, an ordinary person, comprehend the deep and profound vision of a great man? How can you ask me that?” He seemed almost to be hyperventilating.

I couldn’t decide whether he sincerely bought into the notion that those two were great men, who dealt with matters of high statecraft far beyond his ken. Or, rather, had the question upset him by briefly tempting him to answer truthfully — and at his great peril — that the leaders had made a complete mess of his country?

He calmed down eventually and the group worked on the other two, trying with no success to draw out even a few basic facts such as when, why and how the situation had improved. I mostly stayed silent but spoke up at one point to say that the luxury goods stalls and expensive new European automobiles at the hotel had surprised me in view of the sanctions that had been imposed on the country.

The youngest guide, a square-jawed fellow who wore his thick black hair slicked back, gave the propaganda answer: “We are in the era of Respected Marshal Kim Jong-un, and the world will recognize the DPRK as a powerful and prosperous country.”

“But how are you building up the economic resources that are needed for that to happen? Where is the money coming from?”

“Our enemies would love to know the answer to that question.”

I wasn’t sure what his smile signified. Did he know the answer himself — or did he simply not want to admit that he had no idea whatsoever?

The next day, still in the mountain resort area, they took us to a marble museum of seven hundred and fifty thousand square feet divided into two hundred rooms. We entered through four-ton bronze doors opening onto a red carpet. The museum staff provided us immaculate white cloth booties to wear over our shoes so we wouldn’t track a speck of dust into the precincts. Once properly shod we were permitted to admire a chalk-white statue of Kim Il-sung, two stories high.

The museum housed gifts to the founder of the dynasty from well wishers representing a hundred and eighty countries. That fit with the propaganda line I’d been picking up on: Glorify the great man by portraying him as a leading world figure on whom the masses and prominent individuals from the four corners of the earth lavish admiration and reverence. Laughable as that might seem to us foreigners, it could play domestically to people deprived of contrary information.

A traditionally garbed young woman was hosting our group. “There are more than two hundred twenty thousand gifts in this building, far too many to be displayed at once. If you spend ninety seconds gazing at each gift, you will have to stay for a year and a half in the museum to see them all.” We would see only highlights, including rooms devoted to gifts from countries represented in our tour group. This led to some amusing moments, as when the museum guide and Won explained to the Australian journalist what a boomerang is. Basically, though, I worried that I was wasting a big chunk of the limited time I had to find out what had happened to Joe.

Some foreign leaders seemed to have competed head to head in their giving. From Josef Stalin, who had installed Kim Il-sung in power, there was a bulletproof train carriage decorated like a Russian tearoom and with sit-down toilet. Mao Zedong later had given Kim a more proletarian bulletproof train carriage with characterless blond-wood Western furniture and Asian-style squat toilet.

My favorite gift was the stuffed head of a bear sent by Nicolae Ceaucescu. The Romanian communist leader had modeled his own dictatorship — including an extravagant cult of personality — on Kim’s. Neither the Romanians nor the North Koreans had predicted at the time of the presentation that, in the same way Ceaucescu had gunned down the bear, his elite paratroopers on Christmas Day 1989 would shoot him and his wife and partner in tyranny, Elena. I was willing to bet that the young marshal, if he should ever realize the stuffed head was there, would see it as a bad omen and have it destroyed.

The quantity of the museum’s ivory pieces suggested that vast herds of elephants had given their lives for Kim. A couple of those pieces and a few other items we saw showed exquisite craftsmanship or artistic sensibility. Most of what they showed us, though, was kitsch. The overall effect was like shopping in an enormous store that specializes in reselling unwanted wedding presents.

Finally we went to the holy of holies, an extremely lifelike Chinese-made wax statue of a smiling Kim Il-sung. Won told us that the custom for honoring the dead was to bow three times. Since Kim under the current constitution remained president for eternity, the guides bowed only once — as, following instructions, I had done at the big statues in Pyongyang.

After we’d finished the tour of Kim Il-sung’s gift hall, they took us next door to a newer hall, a third the size. It housed a smaller collection of gifts — around eighty thousand of them — that had been presented to the middle member of the dynasty, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. The booties routine was the same; the entryway statue, equally dazzling in its whiteness.

Impatient as I was to get information about Joe, I took note that one of Kim Jong-il’s displayed gifts was from Reverend Bob. A realistic oil painting of a modern Middle Eastern pastoral scene pictured a barn where a cow had given birth to a remarkably unblemished calf of reddish brown color. It was apparent to me that the donor had seen his gift as a depiction of a sign that the Temple in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt. Reverend Bob in his Calvary Baptist Church days had cited Numbers 19:1-10 as telling us that in that case a red heifer, a rarity, would be needed. The creature must be sacrificed to provide blood for cleansing in order for the rebuilt temple to function according to Old Testament law. Then the structure, he’d told us, citing Matthew 24:15, could play its role in fulfilling End Times prophecy that foresaw the Temple’s desecration by the Antichrist.

I thought it had been pretty ballsy of him to take the chance someone would let on to officials that his gift was one that the anti-religious regime could hardly accept — much less display. But I wasn’t surprised to see evidence of that quality. Reverend Bob had always been an “I did it my way” kind of guy. He’d left Calvary Church over disagreements with the priggish and assertive chairman of the Board of Deacons. Barney Pietsch disapproved of cigar smoking and just about everything else, and he had his own ideas of how the church’s youth ministry should be carried out. Pietsch, who had grown rich as a real estate investor, also had a limited tolerance for hearing his own children quote the needle’s eye verse that the youth pastor liked to recite. “I’m outta here,” Reverend Bob had told Joe and me, raising his arms like a boxer at the conclusion of a victorious bout.

My discovery about Reverend Bob’s gift to Kim Jong-il entertained me, but I had other things on my mind. I’d figured out right away that the tasteless excess on display in the museums would have driven Joe up the wall. I’d been waiting patiently to see what the guides would tell us about my friend’s visit there. So far, they’d failed to oblige. My patience was draining away.

The regime in 1996 had completed the Dear Leader’s gift-hall annex, which had been built with the same expensive materials as his father’s. As we trod a marble-floored hallway between exhibition rooms, I saw chilling confirmation that the famine and subsequent food shortages around that time had taken a heavy toll. We passed a platoon of uniformed soldiers, apparently sent from their base for sightseeing. Nearly all were conspicuously short. Several were under five feet tall.

I felt that I couldn’t in good conscience swallow my feelings any longer — mission or no mission. I’d been speaking only English, hiding my Korean language ability. Shin Mi-song was doing most of the interpreting for us and she was standing nearby. Even a Tiffany’s window dresser couldn’t have arranged her black dress — the same one she’d worn two days before — more skillfully to produce a lush backdrop for her gold watch and necklace. With her jewelry, Ms. Shin herself could symbolize what I was finding obscene about the country – but I didn’t want to get personal. Instead I had her ask the museum guide, “Why did you spend a fortune building this museum, using so many scarce resources, when people were starving?”

The museum guide’s mouth flew open. Her eyes widened. But soon she came up with a breathless, high-pitched reply. “Precious new gifts were coming in and we could not exhibit them in a poor palace, so we built this palace with our best. It was the greatest desire of all the people. Why are you asking such a question? You must be a capitalist to care so much for money.”

At that moment, as if imitating my mood, the room went completely dark. We tourists spoke quietly among ourselves. “No surprise here — forces of darkness and all that,” the Australian correspondent muttered. The guides waited silently, any reactions invisible to us.

Even when the blackout ended a couple of minutes later, the museum guide didn’t say a word about it. I was ready to resume my attack by pointing to the electrical shortage as further evidence that the rulers’ spending priorities were skewed — but she had already started moving the crowd along to the last room in the annex, where we would be permitted to gaze upon the Chinese wax statue of Kim Jong-il.

Just as well, I reflected. She hadn’t made the policies. If, thanks to eloquence or luck, I should manage to elicit a sign of agreement from her, she’d probably suffer ramifications. I didn’t want to be responsible for that.

From the exit, where we took our booties off, she led us via an external stairway to an upper-floor roofed terrace where Won called for one volunteer from each of the nationalities represented on the tour to write down impressions in the guest book. I was determined not to be their dupe this time. Fortunately they didn’t ask me. Instead they roped in a sixtyish American widow, a real tourist.

Shin Mi-song was standing beside me, along with a couple of reporters. I was acutely aware that spouting off was not what I had come to do, and I’d hoped my temper was cooling. But, no, here it came surging back. I made no effort to hide the bitter reproach that must have been evident in my eyes and voice as I remarked, “Joseph Hammond must have had a really choice comment about this place.”

Shin glanced at me, poker faced, and then pointed toward the table that held the folio-sized guest book and a pen. “Here on the terrace he was asked to leave an inscription in the book. At first he refused, saying that if we required him to write down his views we would only be displeased with the results. But finally he gave in and wrote something, which I then translated for the museum guide. It was to this effect: ‘I cannot tell the DPRK how to spend its money. But I would not wish my own government to spend this way.’ ”

“I bet that went over well.”

“The museum guide — not this woman but another one who was showing us around — ripped the page out of the book and yelled at him that no other visitor had ever written any such insulting thing until that day. All the other visitors’ comments had been very positive.”

“From what you’ve told me about this Hammond character, I’m guessing he got in the last word.”

“Yes. He told her, ‘Other visitors go home and report to their countrymen pretty much as I have written but in blunter terms. Of course while they are here they try to be polite. I will be polite: You have a pretty dress and a nice face. The grounds are lovely.’ ”

I mentally applauded Joe, as a couple of the reporters jotted down the quote. But, ultimately, had he been busted for that sort of comment? I decided to try to get Shin off to the side so I could take a chance and try to talk with her frankly. Just then, though, our male minders rounded us up to board the bus.

I took an aisle seat in a back corner of the bus, hoping that Shin would join me in the window seat. As she boarded behind me, though, another member of the group sitting farther toward the front waylaid her with some questions about the remaining itinerary. Shin sat down there. The German reporter took the seat beside me.

Trying to look on the bright side, I thought about how glad I was to be out of the gaudy museums. On the landscaped museum grounds, leaves were just starting to turn red and yellow, pink and gold. But the welcome preview of autumn color soon gave way to the treeless countryside we’d passed through on the way up. It was a cloudy, dull day.

The German started talking to me about a theory he was developing: Joe, with critical remarks such as the ones that Shin and various site guides had quoted to us, had crossed some invisible red line. Then — whether merely registering his hosts’ strong disapproval or actually receiving a reprimand from them — he had grown paranoid. By the time of his arrival at the DMZ, he’d imagined that his life was in danger and that he had no option but to run for it.

Not wanting to let on that I’d known Joe — or to reveal the clue I’d seen on his palm that suggested other possible reasons for his behavior — I grunted and nodded and shrugged. Eventually the German exhausted the topic. The tedium of the drive fed our need for sleep after several days of early rising. First he and then I nodded off. I awoke as we drove into Pyongyang.

That was our night to go to the capital’s May Day Stadium. North Korea had made it almost an annual routine to invite visitors to a festival featuring tens of thousands of dancers, gymnasts, acrobats and musicians, along with card-flippers who created vast pictorial mosaics covering an entire side of the one hundred fifty thousand-seat stadium while the others performed on the field. The show was supposed to be taking a year off, but the authorities had decided to offer reruns during the height of the tourist season.

The nightly show combined the regime’s version of history — including bloody scenes of fighting against first the Japanese and then the Americans — with a celebration of the paradise supposedly being built. The card-flippers formed pictures of a tractor factory and a hydroelectric plant. The leaders’ idea of the economy seemed still stuck in the socialist past before the state-run enterprises had failed and the economy collapsed. There were no scenes of private traders buying and selling in the markets — the big factor that foreign experts had described as all that stood between the population and another huge disaster.

I managed to sit next to Shin in the stadium — but so did the Australian correspondent. And other journalists were sitting within earshot. Shin stayed busy answering questions about the display.

It was not even nine o’clock when we left the stadium. Most members of the group wanted to go out on the town, so we invited our minders to join us for some nightlife at any venue they might suggest — our treat. I figured this could be my opportunity to ask about Joe. The music might provide cover for private conversation.

The three male guides looked at Shin Mi-song when we first made the proposal. They looked at her again when I mentioned we’d prefer live music.

“Our nightspots have more karaoke than live music,” she said, “but I do know one place where we may be able to go.” It took her a few minutes on her mobile phone to organize the outing. After riding in our bus on what seemed a meandering, roundabout route, we arrived at a building that I suspected was actually within a pistol shot of the hotel.

Our group quickly found itself ensconced in the building’s basement listening to a competent Chinese jazz ensemble. Some of my colleagues were puzzled: What about all the stories we’d read saying that jazz was banned in North Korea, on account of its anti-socialist decadence? I figured times changed — and, anyhow, rules were made to be broken by those of high enough status.

We were the only Westerners in what appeared to be an exclusive club, furnished with sofas and upholstered chairs. Among the Asians present, only about half were North Koreans as evidenced by their Kim portrait pins. Several groups, each consisting of both pinned and non-pinned, were speaking among themselves in Chinese; one group spoke Japanese. Shin Mi-song sat down next to me. My opportunity finally having come, I leaned over and spoke into her ear: “Tell me more about Joe Hammond, please, Ms. Shin.”

Her eyes registered that she’d heard me — but just then the band took a break. One of the other guides turned to Shin and, in Korean, urged her to play the piano. I’ve got to hear this, I thought.

She strolled forward with her perfect runway-model walk, and then seemed to prepare herself rather primly before arranging her perfect ass on the stool — sidesaddle. That was the clue, but I missed it. And then, without having given any other advance hint of what was coming, she started shaking the shapely right leg that was facing the audience, swaying and bobbing her head as she pounded out a number that I instantly recognized as “Great Balls of Fire.”

She hit the notes right, both the boogie-woogie bass and the treble runs, and when she got to the appropriate place she even kicked over the piano stool. Apparently totally uninhibited, she played standing up. She must have watched the old Jerry Lee Lewis film clips on YouTube to get that part right.

In no way did she resemble the brainwashed, lockstep, robotic North Korean of the media stereotype. I wondered, as I watched and listened, how that side of her fit in with the evidently sincere affection for the late Kim Il-sung she’d expressed in our conversation on the first day of the tour.

She wasn’t singing, and it appeared she didn’t plan to. Redneck twang must not have been part of the curriculum at the schools where they’d taught her the BBC English she spoke. But “Great Balls” without the words is lamentably incomplete, so what was a musically inclined fellow supposed to do?

Figuring it was a way to ingratiate myself with her, I stood and sang as I repositioned myself next to the piano. The tourists and reporters were the first to start dancing, then some of the Chinese. Finally, half the people in the room including two of our male guides were up rocking and rolling.

When we finished that number she suggested we follow with “That’s All Right Mama.” I reached in my pocket and found the appropriate harp. When we’d finished that one, she suggested I pick our third and last number. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” offered great harmonica solo slots plus lyrics that, as Fatback Hawkins had pointed out to me, can be twisted tighter than two-dollar bed sheets around a fat hooker in a cheap hotel room.

The house band returned as we completed our mini-set. The crowd was going so wild by then, I judged Ms. Shin could’ve gotten away with setting the piano on fire — as, legend had it, Jerry Lee Lewis once had done to keep the great Chuck Berry from following his act.

With me, she could have gotten away with just about anything, I was thinking, my pants bulging, as we returned to our seats. Concentrate on the mission, dude, not the woman. As the house band began its set I was preparing to either hear her response to what I’d asked her or repeat the question.

A man appeared behind us, leaned over and said in Korean that the two of us were invited to the Number One Room. Ms. Shin translated for me, but called it the “VIP Room.” We followed the man toward a door, flanked by a large mirror, on one side of the club’s main room. Someone unlocked the heavy steel door. As we passed through, I could see that the mirror was a one-way viewing window through which those seated in the burgundy and gold brocade-wallpapered inner space could watch both the performers and the club’s non-VIP patrons.

The group inside consisted mostly of young people, the women apparently still in their teens and every one of them as gorgeous as Shin. Three or four men wearing earphones and standing around the edges of the room clearly were armed, their suits not of sufficient quality to disguise the underarm bulges.

The VIP himself was a portly man seated at the center of the group and otherwise identifiable thanks to adoring expressions and body language displayed by those gathered around him. I figured him to be in his early thirties. Unlike his bodyguards, he wore no lapel pin. Like them, he was packing. His pinstriped charcoal-gray business suit was the second obscenely expensive bespoke model I’d noticed in Pyongyang. The tailoring was fine enough to disguise a shoulder holster — but he had pulled back his lapels and let his belly hang out, the better to attack his drink. I could see the butt of his pistol poking out.

With his girth and the roundness of his face the man bore some resemblance to the Kims whose portraits hung on walls, especially the oldest and the youngest. But this one wore a diamond stud in his left earlobe. The hairstyle was different, too — he wore his spiked — and to my eye he didn’t look exactly like the pictures of any of them. I figured he might be secondary royalty — a brother, or maybe a cousin.

Seated next to him was the only old person in the group, a bald, lantern-jawed, khaki-uniformed officer with big, prominent teeth who looked to be in his sixties or seventies. Judging by all the ribbons and gold braid and medallions he wore, his rank had to be among the highest.

The VIP, obviously for my benefit, spoke to Shin in English — limited English, nowhere near her standard: “Every time, comrade, you surprise us. Last week, techno. American guy with you borrowed a trumpet and played. That was OK but then he went to Panmunjom, made a mess. This guy going to cause problems, too?”

He looked at me. Shin Mi-song looked at me. Was she taking heat on account of Joe’s — and, now, my — behavior? I figured I was on my own. I thought I’d better start out playing the fool, the guise in which I’d apparently disarmed the loathsome Barbara Lee.

“I’m not a fellow who goes around looking for trouble,” I lied in slow Mississippi English, a shit-eating grin on my face. “But I do know a recording company that would love to sign up Ms. Shin here if you wouldn’t mind too much having her smuggled to Nashville, in my suitcase, so she can get started on winning her Grammy.”

“Hah! We have export ban on Comrade Mi-song. But take a drink — consolation prize.” One of his minions poured Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Asian high rollers preferred Blue. We still hadn’t been invited to sit down. But I was so relieved that neither Ms. Shin nor I had been hauled off to face a firing squad, I didn’t mind standing.

Before we’d had time to get down more than a swallow or two the VIP, who hadn’t introduced himself, stood to signal that our time was up. “Come back, visit my country again.” We started out the way we had come in. As we walked through the doorway and turned, I looked around. One of the bodyguards had opened a separate door in the back of the room. As our host and his retinue exited I caught a brief glimpse of an arched, brick-walled underground passageway in which stood a vehicle that reminded me of an amusement park railroad’s open passenger car.

Soon it was time for our group to leave, since we’d have an early start the next day. Ms. Shin sat apart from me on the bus back to the hotel, but when we got off I went up to her and whispered, “Is he one of the Kim family?”

“Yes,” she said, curtly enough to warn me not to pursue the matter. I headed up to my room after what I considered a mostly fruitless day. I’d confirmed only that Shin was personally known to someone in the ruling family. At least I was probably right to focus on getting her to talk, I told myself. But then a small voice grew louder, warning me that the way the evening had progressed wasn’t an accident. Shin was no ordinary tour guide. I needed to avoid getting caught in a setup.

Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues

Part one of Nuclear Blues 

Next week: Part 3 – In Your Face

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