Although a burnt-out journalist has switched careers, seeing his best friend killed drives him back into the fray. Dodging attempts on his own life, the bourbon-drinking, Bible-quoting son of a white Mississippian father and Korean mother searches for answers in the heart of darkness known as North Korea. Each week, Asia Times will publish further installments from this gripping thriller, so timely it’s positively eerie. Full-length print and digital copies available. Now read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 ,Part 4 and Part 5.
Chapter 12: Can’t Dance
I picked up sandwiches from the Sunday brunch buffet in the dining hall. The first order of business was to make my rooms habitable again. Squatting on the wooden floor, I wielded a towel to wipe up bourbon and broken glass and dried blood. I heard footsteps, and a shadow appeared on the wall. Grabbing the gore-caked remains of my weapon, I swiveled and rose to a crouch so I could use it again on whoever had come for another crack at me.
“Easy, big guy.” Bartow Toombs, the bookish English professor, backed up and pushed his open palms in front of him. “Just wanted to know if the campus renegade Baptist got out of stir. I knew church wasn’t the place to look for you.”
“Oh, hey, Bart. Sorry, I’m a little shaky still. Probably could use a drink to settle down. Can I get you one? There’s plenty more where this bottle came from. Come on in, walk around this mess. Just don’t ask me what’s been going on around here. As I told the guards, it’s a mystery to me.”
“I could use a snort. I would’ve attended today’s monthly communion service in exchange for a few drops of sacramental wine, but I knew those teetotalers would serve grape juice instead.”
I chuckled as I poured for both of us. But there was no mistaking the troubled look on his face. Bad vibrations in the dining hall had made it clear that other faculty members were unhappy with Toombs, a worldly Episcopalian who made no effort to hide the fact he didn’t buy into the campus’s hyper-evangelicalism. With something of a start, I realized I might be cruising for similar problems. While I was too new to have earned a rap sheet as long as Bart’s, he wouldn’t be the only one who’d noticed my failure thus far to attend Sunday services. I replied: “Going through a rough patch?”
“For one thing, they want me out.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” This was worse than I’d imagined. I lifted my drink in a toast. “Here’s to your finding a new gig, pronto.” We clinked glasses. “Did they give you any reason?”
“Sable said they have a problem with my attitude. They’re not renewing my contract next year. They’ve already got a replacement lined up, a woman from Bob Jones University.”
“I can’t complain too much about getting canned. I don’t fit in with most of the faculty. The problem is, I need to start hunting for a job and I’m blocked from doing that.”
“You mean because of that emergencies-only rule for using Reverend Bob’s Internet and phone connections?”
“That, yeah. But I had a workaround in mind. I was hoping to take the long weekend that’s coming up and fly to a civilized country with unlimited communications where I could hole up in a hotel room, do an online search and send some applications out. Now my passport’s missing. I can’t leave North Korea until I get a new one, and that’s going to be complicated.”
“Because North Korea and the U.S. don’t have diplomatic relations?”
“That’s it. Sable did arrange for me to use the phone to call the American interests section in the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. They said they’ll work on it, but it’s going to take time. I’ll go down and fill out the papers at the embassy during the long weekend, and then it’ll be Christmas break before I can leave the country.”
“Sometimes things turn up. Maybe you’ll luck out and find your old passport.”
Pointing to the ceiling, he gestured for me to go out on the walkway with him. “I think it was stolen,” he said in a low voice. “And now, after your experience last night, I think Min must’ve been the one who stole it, for whatever reason.”
I pricked up my ears. “Where were you keeping it.”
“With my diary and other papers, in my desk.”
“I was thinking I should publish a memoir once I got back home. Not many English lit minors from the U.S. get to spend time in North Korea. It’s not that I was having torrid affairs with campus beauties – or any other adventures that would justify the term, for that matter. But I’d been keeping a diary here in notebooks, writing down in longhand a record of everything that did happen, however mundane. Had almost three notebooks filled up. I didn’t have much else to do with my spare time.”
“Might as well – can’t dance. That’s what we used to say back in Mississippi when we were debating whether to go to youth fellowship after the Sunday evening church service.”
“What I heard was, there’s a reason you Baptists disapprove of sex.”
“Yeah. Reason is, it could lead to dancing.” He chortled and took a swig of his bourbon. “Anyhow, on Tuesday I wanted to write an entry about the outstanding quality of the kimchi they serve in the dining hall. When I opened the drawer, my passport and the diary notebooks were missing. I’m not the neatest person, so I couldn’t rule out the possibility I’d just forgotten where I put them. I finally went ahead and made the call to the Swedish diplomats just in case the items didn’t turn up. I still hoped I’d find them – but once I heard Min had been rummaging through your desk, I figured he must have stolen them.”
“Too much of a coincidence.”
“Yeah. I know they have a lot of spies in this country and I’m guessing he was one of them. Good thing I didn’t interrupt him or I might be dead from that knife of his. I didn’t have even a bourbon bottle to fight him with.” He grinned ruefully. “I can’t go to the authorities with my suspicion since I imagine the powers that be were behind it.”
“Anything in your diary that might have set them off?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. I knew people don’t get a whole lot of privacy in this country. Sable had put me on notice from day one that we’re all under surveillance by the campus security men. Being forewarned, I was discreet. I tried to write just enough detail so I could remember the full stories later. I even avoided using insulting terms for faculty members I disliked – namely, just about everybody except you. I was putting down nothing but bare facts.”
“D’you reckon you’d written about something you weren’t supposed to know?”
“There’s one thing I wrote about that I definitely hadn’t been cleared to hear. One of my students, when she was talking to me privately about her course work, let drop that her parents and the parents of other students live close to the university, in a separate compound. The students visit them on certain designated weekends and during breaks. That’s great, I told her – family togetherness and all that – but I wonder why they wouldn’t have told the faculty about it. She didn’t know the answer.”
“Where exactly do they live?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. She got flustered, asked me not to mention what she had told me. I wrote an account of that conversation just a day before my diary went missing.”
I silently pondered what he’d said. It reminded me of my still unanswered question about where student Pak’s father, who might be my first cousin, lived.
Bartow reached back through the doorway and set his empty glass on the bookshelf. “Well, I’m dying to hear your theory on what’s behind the recent crime wave at Posey Korea University, but that can wait. I imagine you need some quiet time.”
“I do, indeed. See you in church.”
“You’re joking, but I did go to the first service of the semester and I plan to attend some more. With my time here so short, I need to gather new material for my book.”
“Don’t be too hard on the faculty in your tell-all. There are decent folks here, trying to do their best for the kids. I was starting to relax among y’all until Min made me realize I’d better not get too comfortable.”
“Doesn’t their absolute certitude bother you? I mean, from Robert Posey right on down they are so sure they know precisely what God thinks about everything.”
“Guess I got used to it growing up.”
“Not I, my friend. I’m accustomed to priests who show more humility about the unknowable, acknowledge the difference between mythology and fact.”
“Substituting Genesis for science, the way Sable and Ezra teach, does bother me,” I admitted.
“That’s a big part of my beef. Students will suffer from those huge holes in their knowledge, once they graduate and go out in the world.”
“Other than that, I’m not so sure much harm comes from a literalist approach to scripture. Take my field. Over the centuries, literal-minded believers have been responsible for some wondrous musical compositions and lyrics. J.S. Bach, for example, was a total religious fanatic.”
“Closed mindsets are dangerous. After all, people don’t live inside bubbles.”
“Well, look at all the good the Posey organization does with its aid shipments. Of course, I have my disagreements with Reverend Bob, but if evangelicals mind their own business – if they aren’t active theocrats, working to change the laws so we all have to agree with them – it seems to me the positives often outweigh the negatives.”
“In the States, Robert Posey is an active theocrat. He told his followers how to vote, and after his side won he announced that the victory was God’s doing. I’d be inclined to assume he’s also a fraud, like most televangelists. And there are signs of mental instability.”
“Oh, I’d almost forgotten. You were a psychologist before you switched to academia.”
“I practiced for seven years. I think you were abroad most of that time so maybe you weren’t paying so much attention. After everybody started to see him as the successor to his father, Robert Posey became a celebrity. The whole world is his pulpit. That’s not enough, apparently. His feelings get hurt, publicly, because he still isn’t taken seriously in some quarters. He had a lot of trouble dealing with that episode a while back when the news media treated him as a rube and an ignoramus after he publicly called Islam a demonic religion. He just huffed and puffed: ‘Demonic is exactly what it is.’ ”
“And obviously you don’t like him one bit, which is your right. But I’m curious to hear your psychological evaluation.”
“The short diagnosis is, he has a monumental daddy complex. He couldn’t match his old man as a preacher – or, until 2016, as a presidential advisor – so he always looked for other ways to compete. That’s my theory of why he got into international charities big time.”
“What’s the harm in trying to live up to a distinguished family name?”
“Nothing, up to a point, but …” Bartow paused. “Hey, you’ve known him all your life and I haven’t, so you could be completely right about him and I could have him all wrong. Anyhow, I’ll head along now.”
Just as well. I’d started to grow irritated listening to his pop psychoanalysis — pun intended — of my old friend and benefactor. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have enough else to think about.
Chapter 13: Far More Than a Spy
I’d taken a two-hour nap, showered and dressed, and was about to pay a second visit to the brunch table when there was a knock on the door. It was Ms. Yu. She spoke softly. “You should go to the far corner of the athletic field, behind the spectator seats.”
I nodded and she disappeared. Her mention of athletics had reminded me of my scheme for keeping minders off my trail. I changed into sweats and loped off toward the bleachers, affecting a runner’s expression of dutiful righteousness.
Seeing the ravishing spy in the distance caused me to pound the ground harder and faster. When I reached her I was grinning and panting at the same time.
“Crawl under quickly.” Wire cutters in one hand, she used the other to hold up a section of chain-link fence. She saw me hesitate and added, “It will not electrocute you.” Once I was under, she arranged a log to disguise the cut in the fence.
We got into her Mercedes, the front seat this time. “I left my driver to enjoy his rest. It seemed a pleasant day for a picnic.” We started up a rutted mountain road, not passing the campus gate — or, for that matter, any other sign of human activity. “This is an unfamiliar road and I must concentrate on navigating, so please wait before asking more questions.”
I dutifully shut up. She was wearing black pants and a red and blue striped sweater. It was the first time I’d seen her in casual clothes. I was happy to keep my eyes on her, largely ignoring the typical cleared mountainsides with their crudely terraced, rocky plots.
Finally she pulled off of what passed for the main road onto what looked to be no more than an oxcart path. Driving for a minute or two more, she stopped the car. “No one will bother us here.”
From the trunk she retrieved a blue blanket and a box of food she’d scored at Number One’s villa. “It is Swiss Day there. Jong-un is nostalgic for his school years in Switzerland. The main course is geschetzeltes and rösti.”
I spread out the blanket. She arranged the chopped veal in white wine and cream over the hash browns and served us.
No longer hot, it was at least warm, fragrant and plentiful. I dug in. “Did young Kim give you any trouble about turning me loose?”
“My explanation satisfied him. During weekends he does not keep affairs of state much on his mind.”
“I’m still having trouble with his identity. The guy I met doesn’t look all that much like Kim Jong-un’s pictures.”
“The pictures are taken when he makes public appearances. The two times you saw him, he was relaxing.”
“I don’t know how relaxed he was, but he certainly acted like a guy with a lot of power.”
“He relishes that power. He is very much his father’s son – aggressive, bossy and cruel. That is precisely why Jong-il chose him, over the two older sons.”
“I guess a dictator needs to be a mean son of a bitch. But the fellow seems really young to be running a country.”
She opened a bottle of domestic beer, brand name Haean, and poured some into plastic picnic cups. We touched cups and sipped. It proved to be quite a decent Czech-style pilsner.
“Jong-il specified in his will that more experienced hands would help out with the transition by providing counsel. But Jong-un soon began to dislike being beholden to the regents. He purged his mentors at a rapid clip.”
“Nobody, anywhere in the world, who was paying attention failed to hear the news when he had that uncle put to death. One of the regents?”
“Jang Song-taek was his uncle by marriage, as the husband of my half-sister Kim Kyong-hui, Jong-il’s only full sibling. And, yes, Jang was considered chief regent until his downfall.”
“‘Downfall’ seems like an understatement. Who’s left among the regents?”
“Choe Ryong-hae is the only mentor still standing who was assigned to the task by Kim Jong-il. I understand he was seated next to Jong-un at your performance last night.”
“Civilian clothes? Round-faced older guy?”
“Yes. He was demoted a while ago, only to bounce back into Jong-un’s favor. But I would say that it is only a matter of time before Jong-un pushes Choe out permanently.”
“What sort of background made him mentor material?”
“He is the son of a close guerrilla comrade of Kim Il-sung’s, and in his youth, he was part of the group of princelings that hung around Kim Jong-il. Illustrating how much a part of the junior power structure he was, that gang gave Choe a rude nickname.”
“I’m cleared for rude. What was Choe Ryong-hae’s nickname as a youngster?”
“Ryong-du. Head moving toward the sky? I don’t get it as a nickname.”
“It is a slang term for masturbation. In English, you might call him Wanker Choe.”
“Ha. I missed that when I was studying Korean. Certainly didn’t hear it from either Halmeoni or Mama. Are you going to tell me why they called him that?”
“He was several years younger than Jong-il but lived in the same elite neighborhood in Pyongyang. One day Jong-il, who was then a college student, had a group of male and female friends visiting at the mansion. He expressed doubts about the manliness of Choe, who was shy and not yet dating. Jong-il ordered Choe to drop his pants, then pointed out his lack of an erection despite the presence of the girls. To make a long story short, some of the boys held Choe down while a girl was enlisted to massage him. He grew aroused. According to those who were there Jong-il said, “Oh, you are capable. I am satisfied.”
Mi-song recounted all that matter-of-factly, with no accompanying blushes.
“Wanker Choe! He seemed to be having a good time with the girls last night.”
“Despite physical problems related to tobacco, alcohol and aging, he is quite the ladies’ man. My nephew has arranged for him to receive twenty milligrams of Cialis per day.”
“And what does Wanker do in return?”
“His specialty is domestic politics. He handled the transition when Jong-il took over and then again for Jong-un. He is skilled at political agitation and control – and branding. Among American political operatives, you might compare Roger Stone, who served Republicans from Nixon to Trump. It was Choe who proposed changing Jong-un’s appearance to achieve a closer resemblance to his grandfather.”
“There was one other guy I noticed both places, in the nightclub VIP room and again last night at the villa: crew-cut, square-jawed, looked a little like John Travolta without the smile. Wore the same civilian clothes both times: blue shirt, striped necktie. Big bulge under the left lapel of his suit jacket. Seated behind the kid both times. Bodyguard?”
“Chief personal bodyguard – first to Jong-il and now to Jong-un, who refuses to go anywhere without him.”
“I’m lucky to have you as my tutor regarding the ins and outs of the North Korean elite. Guess your family connection makes you quite the big shot.”
“Not many know that I am Kim Il-sung’s daughter. Those few who know dare not spread the information beyond the inner circle. The leader’s sexual exploits are a totally taboo topic.”
“You seem quite powerful.”
“That is because of my position with the agency. Normally membership in the ruling family does not come with many practical perquisites unless one is among the official offspring.
“I don’t get the impression you’re poor.”
“I am remunerated according to my rank, which is comparable to three-star general. The pay is nothing by your country’s standards or by the standards of the North Koreans who work in foreign trade. My apartment in Pyongyang is modest – three rooms. When I work I wear, if not my Arirang uniform of chima-chogori, either my black dress or my gray dress. They are the only Western business outfits that I own.”
“You’d be a knockout in a croker sack.” As soon as I’d spoken I regretted it. Keep it in your pants, Heck. We’re after information here. I was as relieved as I was disappointed when, after the briefest smile, she adopted the patient expression of someone who’s waiting for the next question. So I asked it.
“Whose idea was the CDS scheme?”
“Mine, I am sorry to say.”
I whistled. “That’s some sophisticated swindle for a spy to have come up with.”
“For my work, I often read material from enemy countries. Around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death, I came upon a paper from the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. I remember the exact title: ‘North Korea’s Provocations and South Korea’s Stock Market.’”
I took another bite of veal.
“The study examined ten of our previous provocations and explained why eight of them had moved the Seoul bourse’s KOSPI index more than the other two. It occurred to me that for those with superior information there was money to be made by trading in sizable, high-volume markets around the world. While I was thinking about that, I read something from the United States about how the financial reform law had given a pass to naked CDS trading. I read enough to realize that the swaps market would be much easier to manipulate without detection than the stock market.”
I put down my fork. “You must be a financial whiz to have figured that out.”
“My adoptive father understood real-world economics better than most North Korean officials, and some of his concerns rubbed off on me. I took secondary school economics courses in Europe, and later majored in political economy at university in Pyongyang.”
“Learn anything at the university?”
“I realized that my North Korean professors had little idea of how prosperity had come to the West and to South Korea. Their job was to give us a vision of an ideal top-down economy as it was supposed to have existed under my biological father in the 1960s. Faculty careers would have suffered if the professors had switched from outlining the evils of capitalism to enthusing over the advantages of reforming and opening up in the style of China or Vietnam.”
“Was that training supposed to help you as a spy?”
“In theory, yes. Political economy is a prestigious major – it was the major of Kim Jong-il himself. My degree was a factor in my rise in the agency. It helped me again when an opportunity arose for a small group of exchange students to study economics and finance in New Zealand.”
“You went for it?”
“I applied, and that was one occasion when my royal bloodline was beneficial. People like me have been overrepresented among the country’s exchange students, no matter the destination, because of our presumed loyalty to the ruler in the face of overseas temptations to the contrary.”
I chuckled. “Meaning, by extension, spies are also overrepresented among exchange students.”
“Precisely. At least one student in our group needed to be an undercover minder, keeping tabs on the rest of the group. I was a natural to go in that role and to learn about the capitalist imperialists so that we could use their methods against them. In the end, however, my Kiwi professors brought me to an understanding of why so many of our people are in dire straits.”
“Dangerous knowledge once you came home, I imagine.”
“Kim Jong-il was still alive then. I knew better than to try to push him to reform and open the economy. He would never do it. He feared that one result would be a middle class that would demand freedom and a share in power. As long as he lived, it simply could not happen.”
“How about Jong-un? I read some articles, around the time he took over and again later when he launched his peace offensive, speculating that he wanted to fix the economy.”
“Jong-un at the outset hinted of major changes to come. He raised hopes that something along the lines of China’s opening and reform under Deng Xiaoping might occur here. Jong-un even gave a speech saying he would make sure the people would not need to ‘tighten their belts’ again.”
I helped myself to a third plate of chopped veal. Mi-song had stopped eating long before.
“The possible implications were intriguing. If he had asked my opinion, I probably would have taken a chance and advised him to go for it. But very little of substance happened and soon I could see that he possessed neither the vision nor the fortitude that he would have needed to jettison the system his grandfather and father had built. He talked the talk, but I had to face facts: He was loath to do more than fiddle around the edges of the old system. Knowing that I could end up in big trouble if I pushed for reform when the supreme leader was not ready for it, I came up with Plan B.”
“The CDS scam. And when Kim resumed making noises about economic development in connection with the peace offensive, I guess you weren’t buying.”
She shook her head, frowning.
* * *
After I’d savored the last bite of veal and potato, we bagged the trash and put it in the trunk of her car.
She glanced at her watch. “It is still early. We can continue our conversation here. I have not yet briefed you fully.”
That was fine with me. I stretched out on the blanket, positioning myself so my eyes could take in every inch of her. “So how’d you sell Jong-un on your Plan B?”
“I told him that I had devised a way for him to feed the people, earn their love, ensure a smooth succession and, at the same time, play a nasty trick on the imperialists.”
“What I proposed fit into his needs as he perceived them. To cement hardliners’ support for his succession, he felt he must show his mettle – must demonstrate how tough he was by standing up to our enemies. That fits into the long-term strategy of wearing down the enemy, gradually making South Koreans and Americans believe we are so strong it would be futile to resist our demands further.”
“So he would have stepped up the pace of military provocations in any case?”
“Yes, but he might have emphasized verbal threats to a greater extent than he has done. I advised him that the markets would adjust to mere mouthing off. Canny investors eventually would conclude he was bluffing and would start buying on the dips. For him to make the big money, frightening words needed to be accompanied by concrete evidence that he had achieved the ability and had the will to do what he threatened to do. If you analyze the provocations you can pick out the ones that were most closely tailored to advancing the CDS scheme. Words in those cases were combined with demonstrations.”
“Making money at the same time while impressing his generals must have appealed to Kim when you proposed the idea.”
“He asked me for all the details. I told him how to calibrate a series of provocations and explained which swaps to buy in each case.”
The woman had proved to be far more than a spy.
“It occurred to me that for a provocation to move a market drastically, we needed to get under the skin of some major figure – a president or prime minister, a television star, an often quoted billionaire. If we could provoke such an opinion leader into a major, intemperate outburst, that would spook investors.”
“Haha. Let me guess: That tactic really came into its own with the 2016 American election.”
She smiled and nodded. “I also suggested sabotaging Pyongyang-watchers abroad by manipulating the output of the Central News Agency, editing the lists of officials accompanying the leader on inspection tours. Foreign analysts would be fooled into thinking hard-liners were taking over, then soft-liners, then hard-liners. Muddying the waters that way would make foreign markets especially jittery about what our country might be up to. Jong-un thought that was a particularly delicious touch.”
“Impressive! Well, the provocations came to a halt during Kim’s peace offensive, but they resumed with a vengeance once things between your country and its old enemies went sour again. There’s talk again in Washington about launching a preventive attack on your nuclear facilities or leadership or both. I suppose your CDS trades are going great guns in this toxic atmosphere. Are you going to tell me next that you planned the peace offensive – say, to cover your tracks before regulators or anybody else in the financial world might get suspicious and start checking into CDS market movements?”
“How did you know?” She smiled. “I did advise Jong-un that he should not keep up a breakneck pace indefinitely – not only because of the danger that the CDS scheme would be discovered, but also because enemy countries would not tolerate the escalation of our provocations forever. He would need to take a break at some point and let things calm down before resuming.”
“I think Pyongyang has taken breaks like that several times over the decades.”
“Yes. I did not need to remind Jong-un more than once that a peace offensive is the regime’s tried and true tactic for resetting the clock when the pressure to denuclearize starts to become too great. And that reset is a bonus benefit. The tactic invariably has helped us gain on our enemies, moving us toward the strategic goal of weakening the U.S.-South Korean alliance to the point where our leader can rule over the entire peninsula.”
“Kim Jong-un went through quite a dramatic image change for the peace offensive. For a while there, South Koreans and Americans were starting to think he was a really cool guy. If it had gone on much longer, he could have become a rock star and gotten on the cover of People magazine.”
“Choe Ryong-hae was primarily responsible for fine-tuning the image change, although I had suggested the general outlines of what was needed.”
My admiration was growing. I wanted to pull her down on the blanket. Instead, I said, “I don’t get it. It’s your wildly successful scheme, and you want it exposed?”
“It was not my scheme for long. Jong-un thanked me for the idea and told me not to mention it to anyone else. He said he did not wish for me to be distracted from my main job of spying to protect him and his regime. He assigned it instead to his uncle to carry out.”
“Jang had a long history of being close to most of the organizations that dealt abroad using foreign currency. He had been looking for new ways to pull in foreign exchange in the face of the international sanctions. To that extent, he was an obvious choice for the added role.”
“Yet it’s clear something went wrong – or we wouldn’t be here on this blanket together.”
She got the hint but her reaction wasn’t as I’d hoped. “We could probably use an after-lunch stroll.”
I glanced around at the desolate countryside and up at the steel gray sky.
She sprang up and started climbing the hill.
I pushed myself off the blanket with reluctance and joined her. “Something about your expression suggests you didn’t like the uncle.”
“For one thing, he was a dirty old man. He started hitting on me when I was thirteen, home on school vacation. Until the day he died, I made sure never again to be in a room alone with him.” She grimaced. “Looking on the bright side, keeping the creep’s hands off me was good training for my spy career.”
“You said, ‘for one thing’ … ”
“A big problem with Jong-un’s turning my scheme over to him was that Jang Song-taek was deeply corrupt. Throughout his career, he had connived to cut himself in on a huge variety of deals. Behind his back, foreign businessmen called him ‘North Korea’s Mr. Ten Percent,’ borrowing the nickname of the late Pakistani President Benazir Bhutto’s greedy husband, Asif Ali Zardari.”
We neared the peak. The mountains beyond stretched as far as we could see, even becoming pretty as their patchwork grids went out of focus. No settlements were visible. Against that background Mi-song, her hair blowing in the wind, looked even less like a top agent of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. She looked like an angel.
“Did Uncle Jang skim the profits of the CDS scheme?”
“That was one of the secret charges against him when everything finally caught up with him and Jong-un had him put to death. Jang was also blamed secretly for taking cuts from another scheme that had shown promise before the country’s enemies caught on to it – using our computer hackers to steal from overseas banks. But the biggest charge, one that was publicized, if vaguely, was that he had been plotting a coup against Jong-un.”
“So after Jang’s killing did you finally get to take over your brainchild and run it?”
“No. Jong-un assigned me to identify anyone who had fallen through the cracks in the original takedown of Jang’s associates and dig up any overlooked dirt. Oversight of the CDS scheme went to a unit of the Workers’ Party’s Bureau 39, which is in charge of raising slush funds for Jong-un. That particular unit was relatively uninfected by Jang’s influence.”
“Do the Bureau 39 people handle the money directly?”
“No. To get around sanctions, apparently, it goes through a front corporation registered in a Caribbean tax haven. I have not been able to identify the corporation.”
I asked the big question: “Which banker-brokers are handling the trades?”
“I have not yet learned their identity. You must be thinking that I cannot be much of a spy if these matters have eluded me. Let me explain. The DPRK has a stovepipe organizational structure. Orders come from the top and information from each agency goes up the chimney directly to the ruler. There is very little communication across organizational lines. The people handling the CDS operation were ordered to keep it top secret.”
“Let us wend our way back to the motorcar.”
We walked down. To improve my view, I let her lead the way.
“Although I don’t know the name or other details,” she said, “I have heard that a high-level overseas operative working for General Ri Jang-byong acted as go-between with the bankers who ultimately agreed to handle brokerage. And I understand that the portion of Bureau 39 that deals with the CDS scheme has been placed under General Ri’s de facto control.”
“Who’s General Ri?”
We had reached the clearing where we’d picnicked. She turned to me.
“He was in the VIP room the evening of our duet at the nightclub in Pyongyang.”
“Oh, that skinny, uniformed guy weighed down with medals, teeth like a horse’s, who sat beside the grand youth kleagle?” I grinned, hoping to make her smile. I liked her smile a lot.
She didn’t oblige. Instead, her expression turned somber. “The heavily decorated soldier was General Ri. He spent most of his career building the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. He is now second in command of the People’s Armed Forces, under Jong-un. Among the organizations that he oversees is the security agency that ordered Joe killed.”
I gulped, stopped talking and squeezed my eyes shut, visualizing Joe running for his life from a pack led by the wolfish looking Ri.
“The same agency hired the gangsters who tried to kill you in Japan.”
I sucked in my breath. “And the same spy outfit would be suspect number one in what happened last night?”
“I should not be surprised to learn that Ri’s organization had given Min the assignment.”
“If so, would Ri have been acting under Jong-un’s orders?”
“When I spoke with Jong-un today, he showed no sign of knowing that there had been a hit out on you. Certainly, Ri would not report failures, for fear of appearing incompetent. Typically he would tell Jong-un nothing before accomplishing the mission. Then he would boast about having killed one of Jong-un’s enemies.”
“So getting back to the matter that interests us most, how do we find out which bankers are handling the CDS trades for Ri?”
“The identities of the go-between and those broker/bankers are extremely closely held. Of course, I have my agents watching for any information they can glean, but most of my people are based inside the country. Since the brokers must be foreigners, working for a big bank abroad, I thought that an American journalist such as Joe – or, now, you – might be able to discover the answer.”
“Fat chance, while I’m stuck here at Posey University. Anyhow, I think I need to know more about Kim Jong-un.”
“Where would you like to start?”
The blanket was still on the ground and I wanted us to tumble onto it and start something right then and there. While I managed to force my words into debriefing mode, my underlying focus must have dictated the topic. “There were a lot of – I want to say girls, they were so young – women with him, both times I met him. Was one of them his wife?”
“No. When he first came to power he set out to make a show of being a devoted husband. But the temptation of having palace wenches available to him at any time quickly overcame any real resolve he might have felt. When he goes for after-hours entertainment, and for weekends in his villas in the provinces, he typically frolics with his Pleasure Corps.”
“They follow him around?”
“Some especially favored women do. But each of his residences has a separate contingent, with full wardrobe. The local villa’s crew are all wearing their Heidi dresses today, and when I was leaving he had put on his shepherd’s outfit with embroidered jacket and flat-brimmed hat for this afternoon’s let’s-pretend.”
“What’s that all about?”
“The custom of ‘country days’ dates back to his father. Kim Jong-il feared that if he were known to travel anywhere by plane he would be shot down. That fear was based partly on what happened to Mao Zedong’s rival Lin Biao in 1971. Jong-il tried to limit his publicized trips abroad to countries he could reach easily by armored train, usually China and Russia. In his palace and his villas, he indulged in make-believe travel. Jong-un has continued the custom even though he has less of an air travel phobia.”
“How do they find the women?”
“There is a bureaucracy that recruits the prettiest girls in their early teens from middle schools all over the country. They undergo rigorous training in how to please a ruler of large ego and strong libido.”
“Are the Pleasure Corps women considered permanent members of the harem – treated as minor wives?”
“Not usually. Once the bloom is off, they typically retire in their early twenties. Kim Jong-il’s custom was to arrange a retiree’s marriage as if he were her doting uncle, whether or not he had impregnated her.”
“Speaking of rulers and their women, may I ask who’s your mother?”
“That is a story within the very framework that we have been discussing. Jong-il had to compete with his younger half-brother, Pyong-il, to become the eventual successor to my father. Pyong-il held one enormous advantage. His mother was the first lady, with the ear of the president. Jong-il’s mother was long since dead. Jong-il set out to neutralize that factor by driving a wedge into my father’s marriage. He did that by introducing my mother-to-be to my father. She was very beautiful, I am told. Kim Il-sung was old then, but not too old to fall for her.”
“I seem to recall that Pyong-il has avoided forfeiting his life despite all the palace intrigue.”
“He has been prudent enough to maintain a low profile in virtual exile – as an ambassador posted to a series of European countries, most of them in what used to be the Soviet bloc.”
“Did your father take a hand in raising you?”
“Not directly. He had a great many women during his lifetime, but it was good politics for him to pretend to follow conventional morality. There was a need to keep tongues from wagging after he impregnated my mother. Jong-il, as I told you, had considerable experience dealing with such situations. He married her off to an army officer who had been stationed for ten years in remote mountains near the front, with no chance to meet a prospective bride.
“Nice surprise for the bridegroom.”
“The drill was for the bride to pretend on her wedding night that she was a virgin and then tell the supposed father that the baby came prematurely. But I was a normal sized full-term baby. The officer who had married my mother was no fool. He badgered her until she broke down and told him the truth. He got drunk and complained to his friends that the Dear Leader had tricked him, with the complicity of the Great Leader. In a group of friends, usually, there is at least one who is reporting to the authorities. Those comments quickly got back to Kim Jong-il, who by then was my father’s right-hand man. Jong-il sent both my mother and her husband to a political prison camp.”
“What I heard is that three generations of a political offender’s family, including his children and his parents, would be sent away at once – but I’m guessing you didn’t go with your mother, in view of who your biological papa was.”
“No, Kim Jong-il had me adopted by Shin Dal-hyon, our relative by marriage and a prominent technocrat. I grew up partly in his house, partly at international schools in Switzerland where I studied using the name Shin.”
“You said Kim the elder took an indirect hand in your raising.”
“He received reports on my progress and met me once a year to give me a present – the last one was this necklace. He died shortly after that. Shin Dal-hyon actually brought me up, along with his wife, and I feel he was more of a father to me than Kim Il-sung.”
“Did you ever see your mother again?”
“I was an infant when they took her away. They never told me that she had gone to a camp. The story for my benefit was that she had died in an automobile accident. I learned only much later what really had happened. Both she and her husband died in the prison camp after enduring years of overwork, brutal treatment and malnutrition. Shin Dal-hyon’s widow is all the family I have now.”
“So Shin himself is no longer among the living.”
“Correct. When he was named vice premier he devised grand plans to reform the economy. Foreign countries and international organizations were ready to help. His plans would have taken resources away from the military. Some generals went behind his back to complain that he was hurting our readiness for war. Jong-il listened to the generals and demoted him, assigning him to revive and manage a huge chemicals and synthetic fiber factory complex that had fallen into ruin during the Arduous March.”
“The great famine of the nineties.”
“It was far worse than that – a general and total breakdown of the economy. There was no machinery remaining at the factory complex, not even electrical wiring, not a scrap of wood or any other usable material. The plant had sat idle due to lack of fuel and raw materials. Desperate looters had removed and sold or consumed everything of value. There was no way that Shin Dal-hyon could succeed in reviving it with the modest resources at his command. He despaired and took his own life.”
“I’m getting the picture that you didn’t much like Kim Jong-il.”
“Not only did he deprive me of my birth mother and my adoptive father. It is believed within the top elite that Kim Il-sung died of apoplexy because of the inconsiderate way Kim Jong-il treated him after he retired.”
“And now Kim Jong-il’s long since dead.”
“I cannot relax, even when I view the preserved corpse. Kim Jong-il is like a poisonous snake that you run over with your motorcar. Get out to look and you may be bitten.”
She checked the time. “We ought to go now.”
Probably not only the tone of my voice but my face, as well, showed my feelings of disappointment bordering on panic. “But I don’t know enough yet to do more than blunder around blindly in your country. Can’t you spare a few more minutes to brief me? For starters, why are you plotting to overthrow your own family’s regime? What your half brother did to your mother, and to both of your fathers, might explain part of your motivation. But since Kim Jong-il’s death, Junior’s been in charge. I’m guessing there’s more to it.”
“There is more. Showing you is the next item on our itinerary.” We folded the blanket and put it back into the trunk.
Chapter 14: There Are So Many
We drove down the mountain, turning off onto a route that was new to me. A few people walked along the road, some carrying loads. They didn’t turn to stare. That close to the ruler’s villa, local people must have grown accustomed to seeing black Benzes whizzing past. With the dark tint on the windows, even heading directly into the afternoon sun we had no need of sunglasses. The people we passed couldn’t have seen much of us if they’d tried.
On the edge of a village, Mi-song turned off the road and drove into a shed attached to a ramshackle freestanding wood and masonry house. “Let us speak Korean in here,” she said. “I should like to avoid starting rumors that a foreigner is loose in the village.” She knocked on the door of the house and, when it opened, motioned for me to join her inside. Once my vision adjusted to the gloom, I saw an emaciated girl lying on a pallet and staring straight up through one blank, glassy eye. The other eye was missing, replaced by a scabrous sore that leaked pus. She seemed incapable of movement. A kneeling middle-aged woman bent to try to raise her head and feed her some soup.
“My driver nearly ran over her early this morning when we were driving up,” Mi-song whispered. “She is so thin, he almost did not see her. She was lying on the edge of the road a few kilometers from here. Rats or crows had eaten one eyeball. The hospitals available to ordinary people up here have no supplies, no food, no medicine. We stopped to check on her and brought her to this place, the nearest village. I asked around and found this woman, who had known the family well and agreed to look after her. How old would you estimate she is?”
“Ask her. She seems to be conscious now.”
I walked over and asked her.
“Twenty three,” she croaked.
“What happened to you?”
She stared at me from the single eye and replied, “Big trouble.”
To avoid tiring her, Mi-song suggested that I get the rest of the story from the ajumma attending her.
As the young woman closed her good eye and dropped off to sleep, the auntie told me that things had gone from awful to horrible for the patient’s family when the regime imposed a currency re-denomination scheme, knocking two zeroes off the replacement currency – but only accepting for exchange a few hundred dollars’ worth of the old currency per family. “The people, almost every family, lost their savings. Her family” – she gestured toward the young woman – “lost their house, trading it for food that did not last them long. The parents starved to death.”
The daughter had subsisted for years on what she could earn by gleaning grass blades and selling them to families that raised rabbits for fur and meat. Malnourished, she had become less and less able to move around. “Then last year’s grain harvest ran out. There was not much foreign food aid. It is the start of the harvest season now but drought has halved what we normally would be harvesting. Neighbors and relations like me who would have helped her could not. We are all hungry.” The woman looked apologetic.
I walked back to where Mi-song was standing. “With nothing at all to eat,” she said, “the girl collapsed out there by the road. I gave some money to this ajumma to buy some food and try to restore the girl’s health. She is one of the worst cases. Maybe she will live, maybe not.” She lowered her voice so that only I could hear, and spoke in English: “But there are so many who do not have enough to eat!”
Mi-song’s eyes were blazing with anger. “The United Nations says more than forty percent of our population is undernourished; more than thirty percent of our five-year-old children have had their growth stunted. You will not hear the government confirming that for public consumption, but my agency has its own figures. They are worse.”
* * *
Mi-song held a whispered conversation with the auntie, who then left. “She is going to buy provisions,” Mi-song said. “I promised to stay and watch the patient. I told her not to mention to anyone that we are here.”
She walked around checking windows and doors, making sure there was no one within listening distance. “I can answer further questions now.”
I gestured at the sleeping young woman. “I guess you see her situation as an example of misrule. But can you spell out a closer connection to what we were discussing?”
Mi-song stooped to dab salve from a tube on the eye socket of the still-sleeping patient. “I brought some antibiotic ointment from the Number One Villa,” she said. “You cannot get it anywhere else around here.” Standing, she placed the tube of salve on a table. “The ajumma told you there had not been much foreign food aid this time. Cutting food aid was a predictable response by foreigners to our barrage of provocations – which were even more intense than usual in furtherance of the CDS scheme. The scheme has worked brilliantly on one level. Piles of money have come in. But Jong-un” – she shook her right fist – “has used virtually none of it to help people who need help. I had to face the fact that it is past time for at least one Kim to try to clean up the intolerable mess my family has made of this country.”
I respected her passion but still had questions. “Where is the money going?”
“Following in the footsteps of his father, Jong-un spends a billion dollars a year for luxury goods to pay off his allies. I have been on each of their gift lists. Kim Jong-il gave me my motorcar, complete with a license plate whose number started with two one six – which represented his birthday, February sixteenth. He attached that self-advertisement to every automobile he gave as a present. I received mine after I returned from New Zealand when he promoted me to deputy director of the agency.”
“What did you get from the Young Whippersnapper?”
She held up her wristwatch so I could see the signature, engraved on its face in calligraphic style, of Kim Jong-un. “He gave me this to thank me for the CDS idea.”
“It’s odd you wear it, considering your opinion of the giver and his motives.”
“I wear it as a constant reminder of how he perverted my plan. Whenever I glance at it, I vow once again that I will defeat my nephew in time.”
She always came back with the right answer. More and more I was inclined to trust her.
“Jong-un has added cash rewards for loyalty. I get eight hundred bonus U.S. dollars a month, which I am saving for the revolution.”
“So Kim doesn’t keep the money for himself?”
“He has built new villas, like the one you visited. Typically they are equipped with pistol shooting ranges and other amenities depending on location: a ski slope here, stables and bridle paths there. He has had them built so fast that the construction has sometimes been faulty. The roof of the villa at Wonsan collapsed.”
“Guess a fellow needs a place to call home.”
“He ordered a super-luxury submarine yacht with velvet curtains over the main stateroom’s picture window. The curtains are to block the view of dolphins, which otherwise might become jealous and attempt to break in while he and his companions of the day try out all the positions in the Kama Sutra.”
To hell with the dolphins. Such talk was intensifying my own arousal. I struggled to focus on urgent business and managed to get back to the main thread of the conversation. “Now I understand where all the money washing through the Koryo Hotel came from. How long can they keep it flowing?”
“While they have almost completed my list of proposed military provocations and other market signals, surely, in view of the scheme’s success so far, they have added others.”
“And they have the capital to keep going.”
“I had suggested spending only a portion of the profits – enough to feed the people – and using the rest to increase the size of the successive bets. Jong-un ignored the part about making massive food purchases, but he seems to have followed my advice that he keep raising the ante. The biggest money is yet to come. By now it is clear that using it for the people’s benefit is not high on his list of priorities.”
Hearing moaning and mumbling from the pallet, Mi-song knelt and mopped the young woman’s brow with a wet cloth. Rising, she spoke to me again. “I keep wondering what set Ri’s people on your trail.”
“Maybe they made the same comparison you made, realized I was Joe’s friend and colleague – so they were afraid I knew what Joe knew. Maybe they also decided there was no way they could kill me while I was on the same tour Joe had taken and have it be seen as a coincidence.”
“Perhaps.” She looked and sounded doubtful.
“In any case, my boss, the university president, got it wrong when he said I’d be safe on campus.”
“My opinion was that you might not be safe. That was one reason why I sent Ms. Yu — to protect you.”
That made me smile. “She’s on the small size for a bodyguard, but I guess you know what you’re doing.”
“Yu completed the full course at spy school. She is as deadly as those United States Navy Seals who terminated Osama bin Laden. Not only does she work for me officially, but she is also a member of the resistance organization. Unfortunately, she had not been on the Posey campus for long enough to develop suspicions about the man who attacked you last night. After the incident, she alerted me that you were in trouble. I came immediately.”
“Thanks for that. To tell you the truth I’d been feeling considerable doubt there was any use staying on campus. Obviously, the place is far from being the headquarters of some nefarious international financial scheme. But I’ve learned there’s something else going on there that’s supposed to be a big secret.”
She leaned forward, excitement in her eyes. I have to admit it was a pleasure to be able to reveal a secret to someone whose job was keeping and unearthing secrets.
“The university students’ families live and work somewhere near the campus, but we foreign faculty members are not supposed to know that and the students aren’t supposed to speak to us about it.”
She closed her eyes for a moment as she thought that over. “This is fascinating precisely because the first part is no secret among North Koreans in China. Recruiters emphasize that the students’ families are welcome. I wonder why they want to keep the American professors in the dark about that.”
“When one professor accidentally found out about it, his notes on the matter and his passport promptly disappeared from his room. He told me about it this morning. After what happened last night, he figured Min had taken them. Without a passport, or a phone or Internet connection, he’s in no position to spill secrets abroad.”
“We need to find out just where the families are and what they are doing.”
“I may have a way to do that. I tried to establish rapport with the students by telling them my grandfather and uncle had disappeared while attempting to escape south from Kaesong during the Korean War.”
“That came up when I compiled your dossier.”
“One student, named Pak, told me his father thinks we are first cousins. He wouldn’t tell me where the father lives, but I plan to push for an answer and try to meet the family.”
“Yes, it would be helpful for you to stay on campus for the time being and find the compound. That might help us learn what sort of quid pro quo exists between the university and the regime.”
“Ever since Robert Posey told me he’d founded a university here I’ve been trying to figure out just that: What’s in it for the North Koreans?”
“Even what we already knew about the university represents a suspicious policy shift by the regime. There are many possible implications. By the way, I learned this afternoon that Min had been attached to the Posey organization staff since planning for the university began – long before there was any need for kitchen help.”
“What do you think that means?”
“It suggests that someone very important – most likely General Ri’s agency – had a long-term interest in the Posey project. I do not know why. This is another situation in which I was kept out of the loop.”
“Against your will, no doubt.”
“I began to watch the Posey people’s DPRK operations just before your tour group arrived – not because I suspected them of plotting anything that I should worry about. Rather, I wondered what some person or agency on the North Korean side, unbeknownst to me, might be up to with the Posey organization. That was my man whom you twice encountered upstairs in the Koryo Hotel. He left the notebooks in your room.”
I remembered my glimpses of the business-suited man lurking on Reverend Bob’s floor and then, on my last night in Pyongyang, walking toward me on my own floor.
“With both you and Ms. Yu on campus I had been hoping to learn a good deal more. Your possible relative at the family compound – wherever that may prove to be – gives you an in. Of course, we now know that staying could be dangerous for you. I would not suggest you take that risk if it did not seem important.”
“No point stopping now. But what about you? Isn’t there a chance General Ri’s people, besides looking for another shot at me, will be suspicious about your presence here today and start watching you more closely?”
“I am not meant to know anything about how they carry out the CDS scheme, or about Min’s assignment. Your having been on the tour that I accompanied gives me jurisdiction over you, up to a point. They would have a difficult time pinning anything on me, merely on the basis of my having had you released this morning. Just as I have my spies in their agency, though, they certainly have theirs in mine. If they were to learn that we had spent the greater part of the day together, their suspicions and machinations would go into overdrive. It was necessary that we talk today. Now that we understand each other, you and I had better avoid direct contact.”
I wanted contact with her – a lot of it, as direct as possible.
“We can exchange messages via Ms. Yu. She is equipped to communicate with me. Because of what you just told me, we have a promising direction in which to …”
A god-awful sound interrupted her. It was the last sound the stricken young woman would make, her death rattle.
Covering her patient’s face, Mi-song kept her own facial expression even. But I saw the tears in her eyes and heard her muttering angrily under her breath. Of course, helpful Heck would have been available to hold and comfort her, but even I was able to realize this was neither the time nor the place.
The auntie, returning with her bag containing vegetables and a little meat, reacted matter-of-factly. She’d seen this script play out before. Mi-song gave her more money, to take care of burial, and the woman reported on her shopping trip. Gossip in the market that afternoon was focused on the arrival of a container load of Chinese consumer goods, she said. She added that her fellow villagers apparently had not noticed the Benz in the shed of her out-of-the-way house.
Mi-song turned to me. “Before they do notice, let us leave now.”
* * *
It was dusk when we arrived at the spot where she’d picked me up earlier. Shifting the transmission into park, keeping the engine running, she looked at me with a concerned expression. “This is a terribly dangerous undertaking. There can be no turning back. I should like to collaborate with you in exposing the scheme if you are willing. Otherwise …”
“I know. You’ll have to kill me. But what the hell? In for a dime, in for a dollar.”
She smiled, and clasped my left hand briefly before letting it go. I wanted more of a demonstration of our newly intertwined lives. Her body language was signaling that she did, too. We kissed. I’d been right about her lips. So much for the journalism ethicists’ advice to avoid getting emotionally involved with your sources.
Finally, she pulled away. “We are risking too much,” she said breathlessly as she gave me a push. I got out.
As I found my way across the darkened campus, I reflected that we were taking on one of the toughest, meanest regimes in the world. The two of us very soon could find ourselves up the proverbial Shit Creek in a chicken wire canoe. But the mission was worth the risk. She was worth the risk.
I returned to my room and knocked back a bourbon. It helped. I downed one more for the road to the dining hall. Arriving with only a moment to spare, I looked around and made sure there were no new faces I needed to worry about before taking my seat and bowing my head for grace.
Copyright: Bradley K. Martin, Nuclear Blues
Next week: Part 7 – People in the Next Valley
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