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, and Part 3.
Chapter 8: The Gang’s All Here
I walked to the subway station closest to my apartment, heading for lunch with Evelyn. One of the oldest in the city, the station hadn’t yet been remodeled to install a protective barrier between the tracks and the platform. Waiting for a train there never failed to make me nervous. The entrance I used took me to the part of the platform where the back of the train would end up. The long train would still be racing along at close to full speed when the lead car reached that point.
Whenever I had to stand close to the tracks I always recalled an evening in a shabby wooden roadhouse near Greenville, Mississippi, when Fatback Hawkins, then a new friend, had come over between sets to join me at my table. “You got no enemies here, Heck, so how ‘bout you lettin’ me have your chair.”
Upon my compliance he’d dropped his bulk in the chair I’d vacated, jamming it up against the establishment’s back wall.
“Let’s say some fella hear about you harvestin’ a piece from his old lady and he come after you. You gotta make sure he can’t creep up behind you, s’prise you. If you settin’, you want to set way in the back, like this.” He’d added that when walking or standing in a crowded place, like Chicago, “You gotta keep lookin’ around behind you.”
I’d long since applied that Fatback rule to the Tokyo subways, always making sure to keep focused on the possibility that some drunken or impatient passenger would blindside me.
This time, when I turned to look behind me, I was almost too late.
A hunched-over man, his arms straight out in front of him, was barreling toward me. He was so close — a few inches away — that I could hear him grunting from his exertion. I stepped out of his way. With a piercing scream, he tumbled down onto the tracks. A second later, wheels of the lead car sliced him in half at the waist.
I exited the platform before the train came to a halt, not stopping to see what might happen next but darting looks behind me to make sure no other would-be assassin was following me. Out on the street, I hailed a taxi to the restaurant. In the cab, I tried deep breathing, the North Korean DMZ captain’s recommendation for dealing with stress. It worked reasonably well.
My attacker had hidden behind one of those surgical face masks that Japanese liked to wear when they’d caught colds, or when they wanted to avoid catching others’ colds or to keep from breathing otherwise polluted air. I’d seen his hair and hands, though. His hairdo was a tightly curled “punch perm,” a style not so often seen since the nineteen nineties. He was missing the last joint of his left pinky, which I guessed he’d chopped off as a ritual apology to his boss for some foul-up. Although I didn’t recognize this particular specimen, I couldn’t have been in the nightspot entertainment field in Tokyo without exposure to the general type.
Why would an aging, unreconstructed yakuza try to kill me? Somebody somewhere had to have taken out a hit on me. I felt pretty sure that the somebody in question was whoever had targeted Joe earlier, a somebody now sensing danger in my efforts to complete Joe’s work. In the previous few days, I’d been in North and South Korea, mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan. Somewhere along the way, I must have tipped my hand to the wrong person.
* * *
Evelyn would be flying out that afternoon to Mississippi for the Calvary Church funeral. I didn’t want to freak her out any further, so I mentioned only that my train had been delayed when someone jumped or fell on the tracks. That was a common Tokyo occurrence.
The unruffled exterior I managed to present didn’t reflect my feelings. I had dodged bullets and otherwise risked my life for news photos plenty of times, had been in more than my share of shoving matches and outright fistfights. But this was the first time somebody had tried to kill me.
I couldn’t focus on my own problems for long, though, because I had to turn my attention to Evelyn’s. She’d had a visit from an insurance investigator, one Hashimoto.
“He’s determined to prove it was suicide and he was probing for anything he could use for that. He kept asking me about Joe’s and my sex life. Telling him I’m pregnant didn’t stop that line of questioning. He said men facing new responsibilities such as fatherhood are known to kill themselves because of the pressure.”
“And unscrupulous insurance adjusters are known to become malignantly obnoxious.”
“I haven’t told you the half of it. He bragged that he had a lot of experience dealing with new widows. He kept running his eyes over my body and smacking his lips as if he were savoring a particularly nice slice of sashimi. He was coming on to me, Heck! Without saying a word that I could report to the authorities or his boss, he was signaling that I could buy him off by sleeping with him. I’d rather be penniless and homeless, live under an overpass with my son.”
Speaking of the pressures that come from new responsibilities . . .
All I could do was assure her that Lang and I were doing our best to find out what was behind Joe’s run. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we had come up with zero ideas on how to proceed.
* * *
Still feeling queasy after Evelyn left to catch her plane, I wondered how quickly whoever had sent the gangster to kill me would dispatch reinforcements to finish the job. The thought of going to the police occurred to me, of course, but I needed to think through my options. Instead of returning to my apartment, I went straight to Tokyo Station and headed for my mountain cabin.
I found a vacant pair of seats in an unreserved car of the bullet train where I could press my back to the window, bend one leg up onto the aisle seat and be in a position to watch comings and goings up or down the aisle, in case anybody might be following me. Knowing that deep breathing would carry me only so far, I’d thought to buy from a platform kiosk a couple of jars of saké and some salted nuts.
An hour into my journey, word of the attack made it to the electronic news display in the front of the car. A headline in Japanese kept scrolling into view: “ . . . Korean resident killed in mysterious subway incident . . . ” I resumed my focus on the aisle and sipped the saké.
Changing from the bullet train in the city closest to my cabin, I waited on a sparsely populated platform for a local commuter train. No dangerous-looking characters appeared. My fellow passengers were office workers, uniformed students and elderly shoppers heading back home near the end of the day. Once the train started the climb up the river valley, I relaxed enough to gaze at the countryside, marveling as always at the tiny and oddly shaped rice paddies tucked into the forest wherever there was water and fertile soil. The rice was ripening nicely as harvest time approached. The bucolic scenery normally would trigger a delicious relaxation, but that day was different.
A hissing sound at my rural station signaled that I could slide the door open and step out. I swept my eyes over the almost empty platform as I breathed in the chilly air.
A two-mile taxi ride took me to the hilltop where the dirt road ended and the stone stairway down toward the lake began. Passing the other summer cabins, most of which were boarded up until the following season, I reached my place before dark. I took the precaution of pulling from the ground and carrying inside the wooden stake marker that bore the house number and identified me by family name as the occupant. No use announcing myself to another gangster who might come looking for me in those woods.
Although my Korean chests and Chinese tables in truth didn’t remotely approach a caliber that would excite Goldberg Stanton’s office decorators, the lake view as always was spectacular. Gazing from the deck with a drink in hand soothed me.
I went back inside, pulled a tray of lasagna from the freezer to nuke in the microwave and turned on the NHK radio evening news. The lead story was the one I needed to hear. The national broadcaster’s announcer identified the man who’d been run over in the subway as an ethnic Korean who’d been a member of Kodo-kai — a financial mafia known as the underworld’s bank. Kodo-kai was a branch of Yamaguchi Gumi, the largest and most vicious of gangland syndicates. Witnesses told police the gangster had appeared to fall while attempting to shove an unidentified man of uncertain ethnicity and undetermined nationality. The intended victim had left the scene immediately.
During and after supper I considered my situation but didn’t come up with any easy answers. My pursuers weren’t going to give up after the one failed attempt. What if they managed to scare me enough to make me contemplate abandoning my quest? I wouldn’t know where to go to raise a white flag. I realized I should’ve had better sense than to try to hide out in the cabin. They might need a little time to reconnoiter after the day’s failed effort, but then they’d find me fairly easily.
A moderately comforting factor was that Japan’s restrictions on guns were extremely tight. Even gangsters generally had to make do with other weapons, such as knives. To kill me they’d probably need to get close. I sharpened my biggest kitchen knives, brought up some rusty golf clubs, a baseball bat and a heavy iron mallet from the basement storeroom and made sure all the windows and doors were latched.
Probably a waste of time since I’d be no match for a professional killer. I really needed some warning in case they should show up during the night. Looking around, I glimpsed a bell, similar to a cowbell, that sat on a kitchen shelf. Local authorities had alerted us to a sharp increase in bear sightings near the lake. They’d advised everyone to buy a bell and ring it when walking alone to notify any foraging bears that we weren’t their normal prey. Carrying an electric lantern, I went outside and tied the bell to a still leafy tree branch, in need of trimming, that hung low over the entrance to my property. Anyone coming in would have to disturb the branch and ring the bell.
Thus alerted, I figured, I should have time to crawl atop my bedroom closet into a storage space, whose door the Japanese builder back in the 1920s had cleverly disguised as part of the wood-paneled wall. I placed the longest of my knives inside the tendana, in case my pursuers happened to know that design trick.
* * *
It was hard getting to sleep. For a long while, all I could do was worry and listen for the bell. Assuming I lived till morning, I decided, I’d need to come up with a better hideout. The really discouraging thought was that yakuza had networks capable of finding me, sooner or later, anywhere in Japan. I had boxed myself in.
I finally managed to sleep but the price was a terrifying dream. I was sitting on a toilet. Everything was blood red: the room, the toilet, myself and all the things coming out of my body. In volcanic eruptions, I was shitting blood, puking blood, pissing blood, ejaculating blood. Blood was spurting from my nose and ears and eyes and the pores in my skin. In another corner of the room, I saw Joe lying face up on the floor. He, likewise, was all red. Tears of blood streamed down his cheeks. Out of his wound shot a stream of blood of such volume and velocity as might have issued from a fire hose. There came an immensely loud explosion. In a flushing whirlpool that resembled a tornado, Joe and I and the room went down the toilet.
Waking to find I was sick, I ran for the real toilet. My nausea didn’t last much longer but the stomach cramps, headache and diarrhea continued for much of the night and the nightmare recurred whenever, in the short spaces between toilet runs, I nodded off.
At least the bell didn’t ring. The symptoms abated enough by dawn for me to brew and drink a mug of tea. Then I phoned a neighbor. Whenever he had days off from teaching English to Japanese college freshmen, Larry came up from Nagoya to carry out his responsibilities as our international community’s volunteer forestry chief. I asked him if there’d been a power failure lately.
“Weekend before last a whole lot of trees fell in a storm. I heard from the electric company crew they’d take days to get all the lines back up, so I filled my ice chests. You better trash anything perishable in your fridge. You can ride with me to the store if you want. I’m going anyway to get some milk and bread. Meet me at the top of the hill in half an hour. Bring the garbage. We can drop it in the store’s bin.”
As I approached the top of the hill I heard a chainsaw start up. A few steps farther and I could see Larry, waving his screaming saw to chase off a mother bear and her cub. The creatures quickly disappeared into the woods. Larry — himself a bear of a man in lumberjack garb — switched off the saw.
I took in the rest of the scene. Two vehicles were parked along the narrow roadway. One was Larry’s ancient, lovingly restored Toyota pickup. The other, next to the garbage shed, was a black, left-hand-drive Buick with deeply tinted windows, bearing license plates issued by the local prefecture. The driver’s door stood open. The shed, for summer use only, was padlocked to emphasize what the sign said in Japanese and English: “Take your garbage home off season!” Someone renting or borrowing a cabin, either an illiterate or a thoughtless slob, had left a pile of filled bags propped against the shed’s door. The bears had torn them apart.
The scattered garbage was a mess — but by no means as awful a mess as the dead man who lay face down on the road. His right hand, still attached to the body, held a bloody knife – a throwing knife, by the looks of it, but he had bled on it without managing to throw it. His left arm, detached from his shoulder, lay nearby. I could see by counting missing finger joints that he had committed not just one, not just two, but three major screwups requiring him to make ritual atonement to his boss during what must have been a long criminal career.
Next to the arm lay the chewed carcass of a miniature poodle. Yakuza and their women liked such creatures, for some reason. To bring the little white dog along he would have had to consider this a fairly routine assignment with scant risk of distraction, I figured. Or maybe he was a henpecked gangster whose girlfriend’s insistence that the pet needed an early morning outing had trumped workmanlike caution.
Kobayashi, a caretaker en route to start his day’s work repairing someone’s cabin, drove up. He phoned the authorities. Then as Larry and Kobayashi stood and talked, facing toward the body and away from the Buick, I removed from atop the console separating its front seats a sheet of notepaper. On it was written my name and address and directions to my place.
I folded and pocketed the paper, which had concealed the vehicle’s front cup-holders. In one of them, I noticed a metal object that looked like a baseball-sized golf ball turned into a samovar. Grenades smuggled from the Philippines, I now recalled having read, were the latest addition to the yakuza arsenal. Most of the imports were just stun grenades, more useful for terrorizing than for killing. In view of the previous day’s events, I figured the one in the Buick must be the real thing, a fragmentation grenade. In that case, none of my precautions would have saved me from being blown to bits if the gangster had made it down the hill to my cabin.
I considered taking the device home for self-defense but thought better of the idea. Leaving the grenade for the police to deal with, I joined the other two men.
“This hoodlum must have been headed somewhere else on the main road and pulled off onto our side road so he and his dog could pee,” Kobayashi was suggesting to Larry. “Maybe the bears were in the shadows when he drove up and he didn’t see them at first.”
“Yeah,” said Larry. “Those yip-yip-yippy little dogs have a tendency to overreach. This one must’ve gone into attack mode against that bear cub. When the mother bear started to make breakfast of the poodle, the dog’s master pulled his knife and attracted mama bear’s attention — instead of getting the hell away, like a sensible person.” He glanced down at the chainsaw he still held in his right hand. “But who am I to talk?”
* * *
The previous day I’d thought I might confide in Larry and ask if I could hide out in his cabin for a bit while I came up with something better. This bloody scene rendered that idea completely out of the question. Now that a local gang was on my trail, it would be worse than stupid to hang around waiting for the next move.
I dropped my bagged garbage onto Larry’s truck bed, thanked him for taking care of it and walked back down to the cabin. My tentative plan was to hop a train for Niigata, a city on the Japan Sea coast where I had friends who’d no doubt take me in. I went on the Internet to message them but found I had an email from Reverend Bob:
We have a fresh opening on our faculty, and you’re the person who comes to mind. I had a chance to listen to the CD you gave me. It’s really good. I realized you would fit perfectly in a new role of teaching music performance to our students, with an emphasis on gospel, spirituals and Christian rock.
We can’t pay large salaries, but we would give you room and board and a local spending allowance while depositing some dollars in your bank account abroad that you could use after your return.
I hope you can do this, Heck, even if you can’t stay longer than a semester. During our conversations, I sensed in you a need for change. I certainly don’t want to put any pressure on you. But I’ve prayed over it and I am convinced the Lord wants you to come to Posey Korea University. What do you say? The new term starts next week, so the sooner you could get over here the better.
* * *
Reverend Bob had a history of stepping in, unasked, when he was most needed. Still, my eyes grew moist as I contemplated the way he had illuminated the way ahead this time by hitting his send button. I called for a taxi to meet me at the top of the hill in forty minutes. That would get me to the station in time for the next train down to the flatlands.
I phoned Lang at home — woke him up. “The bad news was the gangster attacks. The good news is this email. With all the shit that’s been coming down, it seems like the answer to our prayers.”
“I know you studied a lot of Bible, but do you actually think the Big Guy personally orders these earthly events?”
“No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Reverend Bob had enough empathy — whatever you want to call it — to feel my pain and offer a way out. He’s a special fellow.”
“Why not just talk to the police and ask them to find whoever sent the hit men?”
“Considered it” — I patted the pocket where I’d stowed the evidence — “but I have no confidence they’d be helpful. Japanese cops have a lousy record when it comes to the yakuza. Live and let live is a common arrangement. Some places, they’re more partners than enemies. Besides, news could get out and keep us from nailing the exclusive story Joe was after.”
“That’s a valid point, but going back to North Korea is a really dangerous plan. I know I was urging you to go, but that was before this happened. There aren’t many stories worth a journalist’s life.”
“I don’t have much choice. I can’t hide out in Japan permanently, and I don’t want to disappear somewhere else like the jungles of New Guinea. Better to go on the offensive. Reverend Bob’s provided the break we needed. The university’s not in Pyongyang, but at least I’ll be inside North Korea. I doubt yakuza are going to follow me over there.”
An employment application form was attached to Reverend Bob’s email. Reading it, I found that Posey Korea University was by no stretch of the imagination an equal opportunity employer. The fourth question, after name, date and place of birth, was, “On what date were you born again?”
Fortunately, I didn’t need to rack my brain figuring out how to answer that one honestly and still qualify for the job. Reverend Bob had already consulted his Souls Ledger, found the date July 18, 1988, and typed it into the form along with my name.
Back in Tokyo, I didn’t return home. I figured a lookout might be posted near my apartment building, watching the lobby door. While making my travel arrangements I crashed with Hiro, who played banjo and mandolin in my band. I made a list — almost forgot the “people’s clothing” — and gave him my key for a one-bag, one-guitar packing run. He took the luggage straight to Tokyo Station by taxi and disappeared into an enormous crowd there before handing it off to me on the platform for the Narita Express airport train. I watched but saw no sign of gangsters following him or me.
Chapter 9: China Borderland
I flew into Shenyang, whose international airport was China’s closest to the North Korean border. Still watching carefully, I saw nothing en route to suggest I was being followed.
Riding a taxi into the heart of the industrial city of nearly five million, I found that the pollution, at least that day, was almost as bad as what I remembered from Beijing. I recalled the clear mountain air I’d left behind in Japan. But my top priority, for the time being, was simply to keep breathing, whether well or not so well.
I followed Lang’s suggestion and stopped at the U.S. consulate-general to advise on my North Korea teaching plans. I didn’t hide the fact I’d been a journalist.
The vice-consul, a Foreign Service officer whose job included watching North Korea, pushed aside what he told me was a stack of United Nations and U.S. sanctions documents to make space on his desk for writing. When he’d finished noting down my passport information, he thanked me for coming. “I wish there were more like you in that Posey crew. The consul-general asked the university officials to give us a list of U.S. citizens they had hired, but they refused. We don’t know the names of the Americans over at the Posey campus or even how many there are. You’re the first who’s checked in with us.”
He frowned. “It’s hard enough for us to help American citizens who have trouble over there when we know who they are. The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. If there’s any problem involving one of our citizens we have to ask the Swedish ambassador — who represents our interests in Pyongyang — to handle it. Imagine the hassle for the Swedes, and the grief for us, if there arose a situation involving dozens of nameless American university professors.”
“Why didn’t the consul-general insist?”
“Off the record, he did. State Department told him to suck it up. The Poseys have powerful connections in Washington. Robert Posey prayed at the president’s inauguration, you may recall. His organization lobbied, successfully, to reverse the North Korea travel ban.”
“Why do you suppose they didn’t want to give you the faculty list?”
“Their office in Washington told us they were deferring to their hosts. Pyongyang supposedly was afraid official dealings with the U.S. government would lead to leaks to the media and publicity about North Korea’s change of policy.”
“Why would that be a bad thing?”
“My impression is that cooperation with the Posey organization is so inconsistent with the country’s ideology and previous policy, the top guys are afraid it would make them look weak to their enemies, external or internal. Yes, they had dealt with foreign Christian groups in the past — but never before to the extent of encouraging the Christians to practice and teach religion inside the country on an ongoing basis.”
He shrugged and changed the subject. “The Chinese are proud of their new, fast train — up to 148 miles an hour. But the scenery goes by so fast you can hardly see it. My advice for your first trip to the border, if you haven’t bought a ticket yet, is to hire a car and driver.” He stood up and pointed out his office window. “They congregate down the street outside that restaurant.”
* * *
As my driver picked his way through city traffic toward the outskirts of Shenyang, I wondered again just how Reverend Bob had managed to make the university happen. He’d suggested some practical reasons the North Koreans might have gone for the plan. Probably there’d be no point in asking him for an in-depth explanation, though. He’d downplay any worldly factors and, once again, cite the possibility that God had touched some hearts high in the Pyongyang apparatus.
Once we got out of the city I turned my attention to the landscape. My survival could depend on knowing the territory. The journey took us through a vast mountainous area, largely forested, with few signs of habitation. It presented quite a contrast to the crowds packed into much of China. The northeastern reach of the country had once been a separate territory called Manchuria, the reserved homeland of the horsemen who’d conquered China in 1644 to form its last imperial dynasty.
Tens of thousands of refugees from North Korea were said to live on the Chinese side of the border. Hunting them were both North Korean agents and Chinese cops whose job was to arrest them and send them back. The remoteness and forest cover would help conceal any escapees who made it into these mountains.
Yang, my driver, was an ethnic Korean whose family for three generations had lived in Dandong, the border city where we were headed, and held Chinese nationality. We chatted in Korean. He’d turned to driving for a living after the failure of a larger business — a bakery to make bread and cakes — that he’d started on the North Korean side of the border, in Sinuiju. Authorities there had failed to follow through with a promise to provide industrial-strength 380-volt power. That had left him holding the bag after he’d invested a couple hundred thousand Chinese yuan in plant and equipment.
Nevertheless, he said, “One day North Korea’s going to be a good investment opportunity, with the new special economic zone they started building just across the border from Dandong. Construction’s on hold for now but I’m lined up to go back in when the time comes.”
Dandong, with a population half the size of Shenyang’s, proved to be a bustling city with construction projects everywhere. On the waterfront main drag I checked into the Renmin International Hotel, where a university representative was to contact me. The curtains were open in my seventh-floor room and I took in the view of the Yalu, as the Chinese called the river. To the Koreans, it was the Amnok. On the other side, I could see Sinuiju, whose skyline consisted of dull and nondescript low-rise buildings. Off to my left was the combined highway-and-railway Friendship Bridge connecting Dandong and Sinuiju.
I showered quickly and went out to explore the city center — looking for a way to follow the money, as investigative reporters like Joe made it their business to do. The vice consul in Shenyang had reminded me that China remained North Korea’s number one trade partner. He’d told me that most of that commerce — mainly private — shipped via Dandong.
The hotel desk clerk said the Chinese were putting the finishing touches on a new, wider bridge. Meanwhile, incoming and outgoing truck traffic alternated using the old bridge’s single highway lane — mornings one way, afternoons the other. The new bridge site would be quite a hike, the clerk said, but I could easily take in the old one on a relaxed pre-supper stroll.
I passed the bridge and came to a dusty parking lot, where Chinese customs officials checked trucks coming from the North Korean side either empty or loaded. I knew little about the overall North Korean economy, even less about Chinese-North Korean trade. I needed to learn. Since money was at the root of the story I was after, I needed to be able to explain why the international sanctions weren’t working as planned, and why the North Koreans had failed to build and maintain a thriving legitimate economy — failed so miserably that, at times, they’d resorted to international criminal activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking.
I passed a block of storefront offices whose windows bore painted multilingual signs proclaiming them to be trading and freight forwarding companies. A man sitting at a desk inside one of them didn’t look busy, so I went in and started chatting with him. A Chinese named Cheng, he spoke Korean. He told me the loaded incoming trucks carried mainly raw materials including minerals, silkworm cocoons and unprocessed seafood. “Come around tomorrow morning and you’ll see the outgoing, which is primarily manufactured goods,” he said.
“When I was in Pyongyang the other day,” I said, “I saw a lot of fancy European automobiles, Louis Vuitton handbags, Havana cigars, two-hundred-dollar bottles of Cognac. Is that the sort of manufactured goods you’re sending across?”
Cheng grinned. “That is what the American vice-consul from Shenyang asked me when he came in the other day. You wouldn’t be an undercover sanctions inspector, would you? I’m not saying those embargoed items don’t go across, but my company doesn’t handle them. We supply the North Koreans daily necessities, home electrical appliances and, in season, farming tools and chemical fertilizer.”
Cheng told me it was his policy to require payment up front in Chinese yuan, U.S. dollars or euros, not DPRK won. Even the North Koreans didn’t have much use for won, he said, especially since the so-called re-denomination of the currency in 2009 when the government confiscated most of the traders’ savings.
Cheng said he accepted bank transfers only after establishing good relations. “Even then the North Koreans try to cheat us. They cheat a lot. Every trading company that does business with them has to be cautious.”
He seemed happy to have somebody listening to his rant, so I pressed him for details. A typical scam, he said, was for the North Korean side to provide extra performance at first, to establish a good relationship — and then, when the other side relaxed its guard, to plead lack of cash and ask for shipment in advance of payment. A Chinese trader who complied and then tried to get his money back would be told that the North Korean trading official he had dealt with was no longer employed and his former employers refused to be responsible.
I walked back through the truck inspection yard, confirming that much of the incoming consisted of piles of raw materials, covered or otherwise. The vice-consul had told me the Chinese had stopped buying coal and iron ore for the time being but could reverse the policy at any time. Thinking of that remark reminded me of something else he’d said: “Dandong is full of refugees, spies, missionaries, dealmakers, crooks and assassins.” That last category bothered me.
The vice-consul hadn’t mentioned sidewalk tradesmen, but I soon encountered one of those on the riverbank. The man rented telescopes to tourists so they could view the North Korean side of the river. I paid to take a look, and what I saw jibed with my earlier impression: Sinuiju looked dead, almost devoid of color except for propaganda signs and murals. Dusk had fallen and the streetlights and neon on the Chinese side were glowing — but the North Koreans weren’t lighting up.
The vendor stocked items of memorabilia. Tourists could buy crisp new North Korean currency notes in various denominations, North Korean postage stamps and enameled pins — including Kim portrait pins. I had no way of telling whether they were Chinese knock-offs or the real thing. There were singles picturing Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il and doubles in which the two were pictured against a red flag.
“Is there a triple, with the new, younger ruler included?”
“Those are fairly new and rare; only top-level cadre wear them so far. I’m sorry I don’t have any in stock.”
I bought a Kim Il-sung single. It had been a long day and I wanted a drink. I wandered back past the hotel through the built-up downtown waterfront area until I found a large storefront restaurant. A neon sign in Korean proclaimed that I had reached Arirang. That name, I knew, came from a folk song that for modern Koreans symbolized the hope for reunification. The North Korean regime had appropriated the song’s name for the annual mass games festival that I’d watched as a tourist in Pyongyang.
I spotted Yang, the driver, through the plate glass window. The wannabe entrepreneur saw me and gestured for me to join him at the bar. He was sitting with a bespectacled, mop-haired man. Figuring I had lucked into a popular watering hole, I went in and sat with them and ordered a beer. The other fellow, also ethnically Korean, worked as a reporter for a local newspaper.
Talking with them, I got the picture that the main pastime in Dandong was imagining all the riches that would unfold locally if North Korea seriously opened up to the outside and reformed its economy.
“The trade zone could be big,” the reporter said, “but only if the North Koreans would do their part. Their pattern has been to ease up on the command economy — then suddenly reverse themselves. They need to have consistent policies. They must offer credible assurances that they won’t swoop in again and confiscate the private sector’s profits.”
“They have your example. Why don’t they emulate China?”
“We wonder about precisely that. We were hoping we could show the new young leader how to do it right — the way China did it. But then he had his uncle, Jang Song-taek, put to death. There are reports Jang got caught plotting a coup. Whether that’s true or not, he was widely alleged to be dealing corruptly with Chinese companies. His death left a big vacuum. There was one other family member who knew China well, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of the current leader Jong-un. Jong-un had Jong-nam assassinated, in Malaysia. We haven’t heard of anyone still alive in the North Korean ruling family who understands what needs to be done as well as the two dead guys did. For a while, during the peace offensive, it did start to look as though Kim Jong-un himself might be coming around, but lately we’ve seen less evidence of that.”
I finished readjusting my butt on the backless, uncomfortable bar stool and took a swig of my beer. “Even without copying you, the North Koreans seem to be pulling in some big money.”
“We’ve heard that, but we don’t know where it comes from.” The reporter signaled for his bill. “Whatever it is, it can’t be as sustainable as what they could achieve with consistent reform and opening.”
“The new bridge should be at least some help.”
The reporter looked at Yang and rolled his eyes. “Apparently you haven’t heard. We finished building the bridge long ago. They were supposed to be building a road connecting to it on their side of the river. There’s no road. It’s a bridge to nowhere. Kim Jong-un has other spending priorities.”
The men left to keep other appointments. I turned to a wall-mounted television screen, which was showing the official North Korean evening news. The woman reading the news looked familiar, and I quickly realized why. She was the same anchor who’d thrown me into a rage on my first evening in Pyongyang. The big news today was that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had visited an army base to give guidance. He wore a midnight blue Mao-style tunic and his haircut was a whitewall, shaved above the ears but long on top, the forelock flapping against his forehead. He looked like the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung, but he also resembled the VIP I’d met in Pyongyang with Shin Mi-song.
That thought reminded me that Ms. Shin, with her high-level contacts, might well be a spy and might know something she hadn’t told me about the background of Joe’s death. I couldn’t eliminate her as a suspect in the plot against my own life. I just hoped her tour guide assignment — cover job or not — would keep her in the capital for the time being. Happily, I found it hard to imagine I’d need to worry about encountering her at the university.
I finished my beer, perused the lined-up bottles of Western and Asian booze and spotted an unopened fifth of Four Roses. It wasn’t my favorite bourbon, but Fatback was partial to it. I ordered a double, on the rocks. When it arrived in the hands of the barmaid, graceful in her flowing traditional Korean costume of chima-chogori, I silently toasted Fatback and wondered what he’d do in my situation. I guessed he’d just pick up his guitar and start playing and singing and dancing. “When the blues get you down, get down with the blues,” he’d say.
An East Asian man wearing a windbreaker over an open-necked sports shirt sat down on a nearby stool. Turning toward him I was astonished by his resemblance to both Kim Jong-un and Kim Il-sung. Not sure he wasn’t Chinese, I took a chance and addressed him in Korean anyway. “Do you work as a double for North Korean leaders?”
“People have been asking me that ever since I started studying Korean in Seoul in the nineteen nineties.” He asked the barmaid for a Scotch and she moved down the bar to pour it.
I introduced myself as an American soon-to-be music teacher at Posey Korea University and the man switched to English.
“Paul Crisostomo, from the Philippines. I teach English at a university here in Dandong.” He lowered his voice. “Soon one of the waitresses will ask your nationality. It’s part of their job. Tell them you’re Canadian. You’ll attract less suspicion that way. By the way, I’m a Roman Catholic priest. I normally don’t call attention to that. The Chinese are at odds with the Vatican and would kick me out if they decided I was making serious trouble. I tell you only because your boss Robert Posey and I are in the same line of work, even if he doesn’t recognize it.”
“Doesn’t recognize it?” I looked at him quizzically.
“Do you know how he started his career in the ministry?”
“After he got out of seminary and before he came to our church in Mississippi as youth pastor, he was a missionary — in your country, as a matter of fact.”
“So you knew him back then. Maybe you heard him say he’d gone to the Philippines ‘to convert the Catholics to Christianity.’ ”
“You’re right that he has — or at least used to have — a pretty narrow definition.” I smiled. “Although I consider myself a follower of Jesus, currently there’s no way I’d meet Reverend Bob’s criteria to be considered a Christian. But he seems to be looking the other way. Maybe he’s going soft and ecumenical.”
“He tried the ecumenical thing in my country, but by no means in any of the normal ways. He volunteered to have himself crucified on Good Friday as an act of devotion. They rejected him: ‘Sorry, you’re a foreigner and a Protestant.’ I can’t swear the next part happened exactly this way, but I hear he got a tetanus shot, sterilized some nails, hired a group of assistants, showed up in the middle of the night at an already vacated cross and had his crew nail him up. The story is that he stayed up there not just for a couple of hours but for fourteen or so before another group of men, sent by his father, pulled him down — and within a few days he had left the country. I haven’t managed to confirm the details. It was hushed up at a high level.”
I felt a chill, recalling a day at church youth camp when we were all at the lake for swimming. As I’d peered through my sunglasses at Carolyn Close, hoping like a lot of other guys that her loose wet swimsuit top would fall down, she’d pointed to marks on Reverend Bob’s palms and asked if they were stigmata. He’d responded with a faint smile. “Think what you like.” From that moment on, as far as we kids were concerned, he’d had an air of sacred mystery about him – not a bad tool for a youth pastor, working in a pious community, to carry in his kit.
“Wow.” I was silent for a moment, unable to come up with a proper response. Then I steered our conversation back to Father Paul’s uncanny resemblance to the first- and third-generation Kims. “At first, I guess, it was only Kim Il-sung they compared you to.”
“Yes, Kim Jong-un was only a boy then and his existence was unknown to most Koreans and foreigners. Judging from pictures taken when he was at school in Switzerland, he didn’t look particularly like the Great Leader. After his first adult public appearance and his promotion to four-star general in 2010, at the advanced age of twenty-seven, there were rumors they had done plastic surgery and put him on a reverse diet so he would gain weight and look just like his late grandfather. Makeup could also be involved.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Political branding. Kim Il-sung is still revered as the regime’s founding god-king.”
Father Paul’s remark about makeup brought back the memory of the only time I’d seen Reverend Bob’s father in person. Johnny Posey had flown to Mississippi to launch a televised revival in the local stadium. Joe and I were among those waiting at the airport to meet him. The makeup assistant had been at work during the flight. The goo on the world-famous preacher’s face appeared to be a quarter of an inch thick.
We were there because we’d been helping with the local advance work. “Boys,” Reverend Bob had told us, a bit feverishly, “when Daddy gets here I want him to see that our preparations have been the best and most complete that any community anywhere has ever laid on for one of his crusades.”
Johnny Posey had indeed been generous with his compliments, but had directed them to the chairman of the local committee rather than to the son who’d done most of the work. Now, sitting with Father Paul, I wondered if Reverend Bob had ever won the unqualified paternal approval he’d wanted so badly — and whether he went in for makeup, now that he was the active televangelist in the family.
Father Paul downed his Scotch and signaled for another. “The hairstyle is the easy part for Kim Jong-un. A ‘Chinese waiter’s haircut’ is what somebody called it back in 1945 when Kim Il-sung returned from the Soviet Union and made his maiden political speech in Pyongyang.”
“You have your hair cut the same way, so I guess you encourage people to notice the resemblance.”
“It’s good salesmanship. Even years after they’ve left their home country, the Koreans I work with still more or less worship Kim Il-sung.”
“Partly decades of brainwashing by the regime. But there’s an element of reality, too. Kim Jong-il, the second-generation leader, stuck with his father’s policies long after they had passed the point of diminishing returns. Economic failure came on the Dear Leader’s watch. He got the popular blame for ruining what his father had built. People look back on the period when the Great Leader ruled alone as a golden age when the state provided for the needs of the people.”
I thought of the tears I’d seen in Shin Mi-song’s eyes my first day on the package tour, as she’d described the original Kim.
“So looking like granddaddy Kim is useful for you?”
“When North Korean expatriates are told that there’s an even higher power, they find that claim more believable if it’s coming from someone who looks like the Beloved and Respected Great Leader.”
“And over there” — I pointed in the direction of the river and the North Korean shore beyond — “the regime hopes the grandson can trade on physical resemblance to the grandfather to keep the dynasty in power?”
“That is the plan, apparently. But I’m skeptical. In my mission, we feed those of our flock who cannot feed themselves. Young Kim talks about doing the same, but so far has not come up with a way to feed the non-elite. His advisors have done a first-class branding job on him, but branding can take a political leader only so far when the masses are hungry.”
I told him about the soldiers I’d seen at the gift museum, who showed the stunting effect that’s associated with childhood malnutrition. “But I didn’t see any signs of current food shortages anywhere they took us — definitely nobody dying of starvation.”
“You wouldn’t see that at a tourist stop like Mount Myohyang, or anywhere in Pyongyang. Despite the fact the recent drought has worsened the food shortages, you’re not likely to see it even where you’re going. Such sights are not for foreigners. The regime will make sure you and the rest of the Posey community have enough to eat, for the time being. If they let you out to roam around in other nearby communities you may see starving people — but I’d be quite surprised if they let you out. I hear security over there is as tight as in a prison camp, no outsiders permitted in and no one from inside allowed to go out, except along a sanitized route where you won’t see anything alarming.”
“I might have known. Sounds like what my tour guides showed me — and didn’t show me.”
“Another question. The Koreans you’re working with are refugees?”
“The Chinese see no refugees — only illegal aliens. They want them out. So, for the record, I just happen to have some friends of Korean ethnicity who are ‘residents’ of China.” He winked.
“So from those ‘residents,’ what more do you hear about Posey Korea University?”
“The university employs ethnic Korean recruiters, who are citizens of China. For several years they’ve been scouring China’s Korean border region, urging refugees who have become Christian or shown an interest in Christianity to return to North Korea and go to the Posey site.”
* * *
I felt a presence behind me and turned. Shocked, I took a second look. It was Shin Mi-song. Like the waitresses, she wore a traditional Korean ensemble consisting of a short jacket over a long, wraparound skirt. But her outfit was white with a red sash, not the waitresses’ red with white sash. As I reeled, in near panic, wondering what the hell she could be doing here — and how dangerous this renewed contact might prove — she pretended not to know me. She spoke to Father Paul: “How are your classes going, Professor Crisostomo?”
“Very well, thank you, Ms. Kim. I’d like to introduce you to a new customer, Professor Davis, who will be teaching music at Posey Korea University.” He turned to me. “Ms. Kim is assistant manager here — when she’s not traveling, which is more often than you might imagine.”
I had no difficulty believing that she traveled often. That would fit right into the profile, as would the name change. Kim is the real surname of more than a fifth of Koreans, making it the easiest choice if a fake name is needed.
“How nice to meet you, Professor Davis,” she said. “My co-workers tell me you are from Canada. Lately, our restaurant seems to be attracting a great many Canadian customers.” Decoded, those words meant: I may keep your little secret about your nationality if you will keep quiet about the fact I am two totally different people.
I felt exasperated at first; it hardly seemed a fair exchange. But then I reflected that all three of us had dual identities. “Glad to meet you, Ms. Kim.”
“How was your trip to Pyongyang?” the priest asked.
“Busier than I had expected.” She turned to me and said, “Since you are a music teacher, Professor Davis, you may enjoy our live entertainment, which starts in about forty-five minutes. Shall I find you and Professor Crisostomo a table where you can order supper in the meantime?”
She seated us at the largest table. Unfortunately, I noted, it was smack in the middle of the restaurant. No seats were even remotely suited for following the Fatback rule, in case she meant for me to die where I sat.
Under the circumstances, I didn’t feel hungry. My stomach was jumping. Was she or wasn’t she on the same team as the people who’d tried to kill me? If she was, I’d fallen into her trap. Would she poison my food? I put that fear aside when I saw Father Paul, with no apparent ill effects, eating heartily from our platter of braised crab claws and the accompanying communal serving bowls of Korean side dishes including three kinds of kimchi. Maybe she’ll wait and kill me where there’s no taster and no witness, I thought. I tucked into the spread, skipping only my individual bowl of rice.
Father Paul looked up and said, “Here’s one of them now.”
“One of what?”
“The Posey recruiters. This one covers the Dandong area, and doubles as university logistics man.”
A slight, slender, hunched-over East Asian man came toward us, looking at me. He stopped at the table and said, in excellent English, “From the photo, I think you must be Professor Davis. The hotel people said you had gone for a walk. It’s my assignment to take you to Posey Korea University tomorrow.”
“How did you know where to find me?”
“Sooner or later, everyone comes to Arirang. Good evening, Father Paul. May I join you, gentlemen?”
The man sat down. I asked him not to mention my real nationality in front of the waitresses, since I’d told them I was Canadian.
“Right,” he said, “just as I don’t call our friend here Father Paul in front of them. You may call me Byon, if you wish, bearing in mind that few of the people one meets in Arirang are precisely who they say they are.” He didn’t smile when he said it. He called a waitress over and ordered an orange soda. Father Paul invited him to dine with us on our enormous meal. He grabbed chopsticks and a spoon and dug right in.
The waitresses were lining up on the stage. Management had been picky in its hiring: Every one of the women was a serious looker. Some started playing Korean music on traditional instruments. Led by Shin Mi-song, others broke into a fluid Korean traditional dance, swirling as they snapped long pieces of brightly colored fabric as if cracking whips. I’d seen similar performances in Seoul.
Everything was professional even after the musicians changed instruments for a transition to Western pops. One tiny woman put away her kayagum, a traditional Korean zither, and switched to harp — not a harmonica but a real, golden harp bigger than she was, with long strings. They segued into Western classical, Shin soloing on piano with “Moonlight Sonata.” Finally, her crew transformed itself into a rock band. The dancers came out to the tables and dragged diners out of their chairs and onto the floor. I could see where this was leading.
The little harpist took me by the hand and pulled me up to the stage, where she handed me a guitar just as the assistant manager started belting out Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The woman could sing, after all. That song wasn’t in my repertoire, but I’d heard it enough times that I had no trouble providing driving chords to accompany her. They kept me up there for several numbers.
After we’d finished playing and singing — and talking; I’d done the “Mean Talking Blues” — the entertainers insisted I join them to take bows. At least we weren’t bowing to graven images of the leaders, I thought — until I looked up and saw that we were. High on the opposite wall were lined up large portraits of all three dynastic Kims.
After our second bow, our beautiful bandleader walked backstage while the applause continued. I figured she’d return to the stage for an individual bow, the way conductors do in the West. Then, at long last, would come the moment when she’d take me aside and tell me who she really was. It wasn’t that I needed more evidence she was a spy. But we did make nice music together, and I was having trouble figuring whether I should run for my life.
She didn’t come back. We musicians bowed for the third and final time, without her. It wouldn’t be prudent to burst through the doorway to find and confront her in the unfamiliar back-office area. I’d have to proceed on the working assumption that meeting her again would mean trouble.
* * *
When I returned to my table another surprise awaited me. Behind a post was Senator Macon, seated next to an aide and chatting with Father Paul and Byon. The two Washingtonians had visited the Posey campus following their Pyongyang meetings and were on their way home. Byon had brought them down to Dandong. They were staying in the Renmin Hotel and would take the train to Shenyang and fly out the next day.
The senator seemed to have consulted the hotel’s valet service. His suit had been pressed, and he wore it with a crisp, open-necked dress shirt. Macon’s presence temporarily reassured me. Nobody with any sensitivity to the potential repercussions of international incidents was likely to murder me while a United States senator was watching. I could hang out for a while in this well lighted, public portion of the restaurant and get a fill from him on what to expect up at the university campus.
He greeted me as soon as I sat down. “Some of my fellow African Americans complain that not only do I belong to what they call white political groups — the GOP, the tea party movement — but I also talk like a white man,” he said. “And here we find you — a mix of Korean and Caucasian, according to Bob Posey — and you sing black and, when it suits you, you talk black.” He chuckled. “It takes all kinds.”
I gave him the short answer: “I guess we search for authenticity where we hope to find it.”
“I see you like a drink. So do I. Take my advice and schlep some of your favorite hooch up to the campus or you’ll have nothing to do at night but attend the prayer meetings. Bob is no Johnny Posey, and I feel for him as I watch him trying to fill his old man’s very large shoes. But I like his preaching well enough. I’m sorry I can’t say as much for his hospitality. Buy what you want on the China side. Byon here will help you get it through North Korean customs. Right, Byon?”
Byon pretended for a moment not to have heard, then looked up from his orange soda and nodded. He didn’t look happy about it.
“Thanks, I’ll do that,” I said. The tea party wasn’t my cup, but I liked the senator. He was bright, and as plainspoken as Joe. I asked him, “Other than a dry county — we still have quite a lot of those back in Mississippi — what else should I expect?”
“Bob is doing wonderful work up there. In the early twentieth century, they called Pyongyang the Jerusalem of the East. American Protestant missionaries — Methodists and Presbyterians, mainly — made huge inroads in Korea, especially the northern part. Kim Il-sung grew up in a Christian family, even played organ in church. Church was a big part of his training in how to make himself a god, which is pretty much what he did after he got control. And then he banned other religions including Christianity. Now Bob is bringing Christianity back. He tells us that the Korean Christians up there are full of joy to be able to practice their religion.”
“I still don’t see what’s in it for the regime,” I said. “Reverend Bob told me there’s a human rights angle — hosting the university should help the North Koreans deal with critics who say there’s no freedom of religion. But if that’s the case, where are the foreign news stories?”
“I imagine the North Koreans are waiting to time any major publicity for when the news will do them the most good. We American politicians aren’t the only ones with spin doctors on staff, you know.” He glanced at his aide, a slender white guy, who responded by cocking his head to the left and offering a toothy, beauty-queen sort of smile.
* * *
There seemed no point in resuming my Pyongyang act and pretending, for the benefit of Ms. Shin, that I didn’t speak the language. A spy would know — especially since I had ordered in Korean when I first arrived in the restaurant. Hell, she’d known I played guitar. The waitress came back and I asked her in Korean to replace my drink, which I’d emptied after deciding I was safe as long as Macon was around. There was still no sign of the multi-talented assistant manager.
A few minutes later, Macon and his aide stood to leave, saying they had to get an early start in the morning. I joined them for the walk back to the hotel, through a forest of neon. When I got to my room I didn’t turn on the lights immediately but went to the window and looked across the river. Sinuiju was nearly dark, only a few dim lights flickering here and there. What a contrast with high-rise, happening Dandong.
I was about to walk over and flip the room switch but I changed my mind when I glanced down at the street and saw a man on the sidewalk looking straight toward my window. I closed the room curtains tightly, but still didn’t get much sleep that night. I had no clear idea what the North Korean woman’s reappearance in my life meant but I feared nothing good would come of it.
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
Next week: Part 5 – In the Boondocks
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