Seoul, early 1970s: US Army Sergeant George Sueño is on a mission of extreme importance to the South Korean government, as well as the US Army. Kim Il-Sung has vowed to reunite North and South Korea into one country before he hands control of the government over to his son, which means North Korea is planning to cross the DMZ and overpower the American-allied South Korean government. Sueño's mission is to prevent this by sneaking into North Korea and obtaining an ancient map detailing the network of secret tunnels that run underneath the DMZ. To do so, he will have to go undercover and infiltrate the North Korean Communist inner sanctum.
Aware of the often dubious nature of the US Military's tactics, Sueño is skeptical about his assignment. But he has other things on his mind. The keeper of the map is Doc Yong, a former lover of Sueño's who was forced to flee South Korea the year before—and she has a son. Before they can be happily reunited, the plan falls to pieces, and Sueño is captured. Can he rely on the enigmatic Hero Kang, his sole contact in the hostile country? Will the lovely Rhee Mi-Sook, the leader of the North Korean secret police, be too much to handle? And who are the mysterious group of women known as the Joy Brigade?
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Yellow floodlights loomed out of thick fog. Atop the rickety wooden dock, soldiers paced.
“Red-star jokers,” Mergim told me, squinting into the mist-laden night. “They inspect ship. After that everything okay. Maybe.”
I leaned on a taut steel cable, gripping it tightly. The sea rumbled below: dark, listless, reeking of slimy death. We were five miles inside the Taedong River estuary in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, better known as North Korea. Mergim scratched his unshaven face, searching my eyes for signs of panic. Apparently, he found them.
“Don’t worry,” he said, slapping me on the back. “I come here many times. Still alive.” As if to demonstrate, he pinched the loose skin on the back of his hand. “You be okay.” Then he turned back to the dock. “Maybe.”
My name is George Sueño. I’m an agent for the Eighth United States Army Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, South Korea. But now I was standing on the deck of an Albanian merchant freighter, a ship called the Star of Tirana. I was clad in unwashed woolen work pants, staring into the vast predawn darkness of Communist North Korea, wondering if this entire operation had already been exposed and, more importantly, if I’d be tortured to death by those pacing red devils.
Mergim had briefed me on what would happen once we docked, and he was telling me again in an attempt to calm me. It wasn’t working. My fear of North Koreans, “the enemy,” ran too deep.
Concerned, Mergim reached into his dirty wool jacket and pulled out a green vial. He popped the cap. Grease-stained fingers held up a blue pill. “You want?”
I shook my head. If I were to survive, I would need my wits about me. I turned and stared at the dock, and the demons pacing upon it, willing myself to be calm. When a foghorn sounded, I nearly leapt off the edge of the boat.
“You okay?” Mergim asked, eyeing me.
“Okay,” I said. The deck of the old merchant ship rolled slightly, or at least I thought it did.
“I go work,” Mergim said. “You stay.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Take deep breath. Don’t think too much.” He turned and his soggy leather boots pounded down the iron-planked walkway.
When he was gone, I reached inside my crinkled canvas peacoat, making sure that my phony Peruvian passport was still folded into my inner pocket. I breathed deeply, willing myself toward calmness. The tart aroma of garlic wafted on the air. This country was definitely Korea, but a different Korea than I’d known.
My job here was clear. Once we were on dry land in this port city known as Nampo, I had to somehow make my way to the Nampo Southern Section People’s Grain Warehouse. From weeks of studying aerial surveillance, I knew exactly where it was. The problem would be managing to evade our North Korean minders and slip away unseen from the area set aside for foreign merchant marines. Once I reached the grain warehouse—if I ever did—I’d be escorted elsewhere by a contact who would be waiting for me, a former soldier who went by the name of Hero Kang. That’s all I knew about him. That and a password. If he betrayed me—or if Mergim betrayed me—I’d be lost in a world of pain. The North Koreans had tortured Americans before, most notably the crew of the USS Pueblo, a U.S. reconnaissance vessel captured on the high seas. The sailors had been beaten, hanged by their thumbs, left naked in their cells, and subjected to weeks of brutal interrogation. Those who survived the ordeal were released from captivity less than five years before. The others were returned in coffins.
We docked with a thud. Sailors tossed thick ropes from the deck and dockhands scurried below to secure them. After a gangplank was lowered, uniformed men scrambled aboard—two squads, I figured—all of them armed with AK-47s.
The skipper of our little boat, Captain Skander, was already standing on deck. He had a long gray beard and a protruding belly, but in the glare of the overhead floodlights he held himself like an admiral, shoulders thrust back. In my few days aboard, I’d developed loyalty for this ship and crew despite myself. The crew was mostly Albanians, and a smattering of other nationalities. I was proud that Captain Skander seemed so courageous amid this sea of swarming Korean Communists. Although I knew that Albanians were technically Communists themselves, these Albanians didn’t seem like Communists. They seemed like workingmen on the sea—hustlers all, corrupt certainly, but okay guys.
North Koreans in brown uniforms and round helmets secured the deck, motioning for the crew to step back. We did. Finally, an officer climbed aboard. He was older than the other Koreans and had gold piping along the red epaulets lining his shoulder. He stepped toward Captain Skander and they conversed quietly. In English, I thought, because I caught a few words: “. . . inspection . . . contraband . . . manifest . . .”
For most of the trip I’d been clueless about the chatter surrounding me because the main language spoken aboard was Albanian. In Kuala Lumpur, where I’d been sent by military intelligence to wait while they arranged my passage, three sailors from the Star of Tirana became unexpectedly sick only hours after they docked. Desperate for a strong back to help below with cargo, they’d hired me. I’d been aboard ship now for almost a month. We’d worked our way north along the Pacific coast of Asia, first to Hanoi, then Hong Kong, then Shanghai, and finally across the Yellow Sea to Nampo.
According to my passport, I was José Aracadio Medin, an experienced cargo handler who’d been stranded in Kuala Lumpur after the owners of his previous ship had gone bankrupt. In fact, what I knew about working on the sea could fit into a tin teacup, but Mergim had been well paid to watch out for me and show me what to do—paid an additional stipend on the side, not by his ostensible employer but by someone who was in the employ of either the South Korean government or the United States government.
Which one, I knew better than to ask.
All of this had been arranged. I never could have set it up myself.
The North Korean officer barked a command. The entire crew, along with Captain Skander, was herded into the forecastle. Then the armed North Koreans started a systematic search of the ship. The sailors grumbled, complaining because they’d been rousted out of their racks so quickly that they hadn’t brought either cigarettes or matches. Despite their bellyaching, no one dared confront the armed boarding party. The captain sat down on an impromptu stool of wound hemp rope, looking resigned. It took the better part of two hours for the Koreans to complete their search. When they were done, Captain Skander was called across the deck to report to the North Korean officer.
As they talked, the Korean officer lit up a cigarette and held it with the tips of his fingers. He gazed into the still dark sky. Apparently, accusations were made. Captain Skander waved his arms as he spoke. The North Korean officer didn’t even bother to look at him.
Mergim, squatting beside me, tensed.
I wanted to ask what the problem was but resisted the temptation because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. On this entire voyage I’d been as low-key as possible, making no friends among the crew except for Mergim. Mergim was in my work group, by design, and while on the job I mainly mimicked what he was doing. I wasn’t sure if Captain Skander was privy to our charade. I hoped not. The fewer who knew that an American soldier was aboard this freighter, the better.
As the North Korean officer and Captain Skander argued, I regained my composure. This was beginning to look suspiciously like a shakedown. Maybe the North Korean customs officer and Captain Skander would haggle, a price would be settled upon and paid, and everyone would go about their business. That’s what I thought back then. As I learned more about the DPRK, I would come to realize that nothing is ever simple.
Finally, the two men came to some sort of resolution.
Captain Skander returned scowling.
Two armed Koreans emerged from below decks holding plastic packages wrapped in gauze tape. They set the packages on the deck. When their commander nodded, one of them pulled a knife from his belt and sliced open the first package. He held a pinch of the brownish powder up to the light. The commander asked where he’d found it, and the soldier replied. Other than the Koreans themselves, I was probably the only man on deck who understood them. They’d found it in one of the sailors’ sea bags.
The package was slashed with Chinese characters. When the beam from a flashlight passed across the thick ink, I was able to read them. Antler horn. A highly prized aphrodisiac used in Chinese medicine. But, like all personal business transactions, selling it was illegal in North Korea.
The powdered horn of the Siberian caribou could be legitimately obtained only as a gift from the Great Leader. One of the Albanians was called forward. I recognized him. A slender youth with a scraggly red beard named Zarkos.
The North Korean officer barked at him in English, “Is this yours?”
Zarkos stood dumbfounded, not understanding.
Captain Skander stepped forward to translate. Once he understood, Zarkos stroked his beard nervously and shook his head. Then he launched into a long tirade I didn’t understand, the gist of which, according to Mergim, was that the powder wasn’t his and he didn’t know how it had landed in his sea bag. The North Korean officer was unimpressed. He said something softly to his men, and two of them stepped forward and rammed the butts of their rifles into the young man’s back. He shrieked in pain. The men around me surged forward, but the business ends of half-a-dozen AK-47s immediately trained on them. The sailors backed off. Zarkos struggled briefly but was overcome by a Korean, who deftly knotted his arms behind his back.
With the help of two more members of the boarding party, they shoved Zarkos toward the gangplank.
Captain Skander roared in protest, but the North Korean officer ignored him.
After Zarkos had been hauled ashore, the Korean officer, puffing serenely on his cigarette, stepped in front of the sailors. “My name is Commander Koh,” he said in Korean. A young Korean soldier translated. “Welcome to paradise!”
The Albanian sailors shifted their weight, hunched their shoulders, and glanced surreptitiously at one another. None of them laughed, a tribute to their long experience with living in Communist regimes.
“Our country is paradise,” Commander Koh continued, “because our Great Leader, the shining light of our people, hero of the Korean War, and fearless general of our invincible forces, provides us with all our wants and needs. You are fortunate to be here, in this land of plenty, even if it is for only these few short days.” Commander Koh paused, took a last drag on his cigarette, and flicked it overboard. “Your ship has passed inspection. All except the man who’s been taken ashore. He will be competently dealt with. The rest of you will be guests of our Great Leader tonight in the People’s Hall of International Friendship. Due to the open heart and generous spirit of our Great Leader, entertainment will be provided.”
Below us on the dock, Zarkos had somehow broken free from his captors. He struggled toward the gangplank, but his dash for freedom was cut short by an alert soldier’s swift kick to the groin. Zarkos curled into a ball, rolling on the deck and moaning in pain. His body convulsed and he vomited onto the splintered planks.
“The entertainment begins at eighteen hundred hours,” Commander Koh continued, ignoring the performance below. “You will not be late.” Then he turned away, adding, “Kutna.” Finished. The entire armed boarding party retreated down the gangplank.
Captain Skander stared helplessly as Zarkos was dragged away. When the groaning sailor disappeared from view, the captain turned and spoke to the men in a somber tone.
Later, Mergim explained that Captain Skander believed that the bastard North Koreans only wanted money. It was routine with them. The North Koreans would negotiate a deal with the Albanian shipping cooperative and the contract would be signed, but all along the North Koreans would consider the price too low and make plans to extort more money to bring the contract up to a level they thought appropriate. Captain Skander assured the crew that the shipping cooperative would come up with the money and Zarkos would be freed and back aboard before the Star of Tirana left Nampo.
Grumbling, the sailors returned to their duties.
Mergim agreed with Captain Skander’s analysis. For one thing, the powder that the North Koreans called antler horn was too finely ground to be a natural product from Siberian caribou. “Customers want chunks,” Mergim explained, “to see what they’re buying. Then they grind it down themselves. That stuff in those packages is some other kind of powder, not real antler horn.” Then Mergim added, “The red-star jokers want to show us who’s boss. Every time I come here, they push sailors. Push too hard sometimes.”
After he left, I stood at the railing alone, holding my hands in front of me to make sure the quivering had stopped. Then I went below to help with the cargo.