The following is the third chapter of Feffer's new serialized spy novel about North and South Korea (available by subscription here). In the first two chapters, Yongin returns to South Korea after his third time spying in the North — previously, he relayed detailed but fairly banal information mostly on the ingenious and desperate strategies the people of North Korea use to stay alive.
This time, however, Yongin has smuggled out a flash drive with crucial material on it..
Back alley in Seoul. Photo: John Feffer.
Yongin ducked under the fringe that separated the alley from the indoor parking garage of the love hotel. The strips of colorful plastic were designed to conceal the identity of people as they got out of their cars to meet their lovers. That was perhaps the greatest difference between the north and the south. Not the communist ideology, of which so little remained in the north. Not the commercialism of the south, which was beginning to slip into the country like morning mist tendriling beneath a gate.
It was sex.
There was so much sex in the south, and so many references to it in public. In the north, sex was hidden away, and most people didn’t seem to have any energy for it, certainly not the large numbers of the malnourished. And why bring a child into such a cold, unpromising world? The state gave awards to women who bore twins and triplets. It was desperate to replace those lost during the Arduous March. Only members of the elite seemed to have the stamina for a Western-style orgy, which they had to keep strictly under wraps.
The Outstanding Leader, with his devotion to his Pleasure Squad, would have felt right at home at this particular love hotel. There was a mural in the hallway next to his room of a large black man seducing a large white woman in a tropical grove of pineapples and bananas. At night, under the hallway’s black lights, their sexual organs glowed a purplish blue. There were pornographic films in a bookshelf in the hallway. His small room contained a television with a DVD player and, so that couples didn’t have to venture out in the middle of the night, a condom machine. There was a plastic sheet underneath the linens on his bed. He flinched at the sound of the crumpling plastic when he lay down.
He closed his eyes and tried to relax.
This last tour of duty in the north had been the most difficult. For three years he’d impersonated an engineer near Hamhung on the east coast. He hadn’t worked as an engineer, though. Because the state of the economy in the north had grown perilous, he’d been drafted into a work detail that cleared land for fish ponds. The labor had been intensive, the food insufficient. And the vantage point ideal. He’d been able to collect valuable information about public attitudes toward the North Korean authorities. He might have stayed for another year if he hadn’t inadvertently come across the information that he was hours away from passing on to his handlers. This information had prompted him to make a dangerous and nearly fatal crossing back to the south. The documents contained on the flash drive in his pocket would change the trajectory of the current negotiations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
He just had to give a little more thought to how he would deliver this information. Compared to the daily acting challenge, the hardship of performing a North Korean, thinking had been easy in the north. He divided his thinking time into thirds. During the time spent clearing rocks or unearthing tree trunks, he concocted the smallest details of his persona – the new shoes he received as a gift from the government when he was seven, his first taste of Pyongyang cold noodles, the party for his grandmother’s sixtieth birthday. During another portion of his thinking time he silently recited selections from the essays of the dearly departed Great Leader and his son the Beloved Leader, for it was always safer simply to quote from their texts than venture something new in conversation. And the last part of his mental time he reserved for free thought.
Even this exercise of free thought had ground rules. He could not think about the south. He was not allowed to think about the past. He could not desire anything from these other worlds. Instead he concentrated on the here and the now, on the society around him, how it survived like a willow in the strongest gales of wind. He thought about the gradual breakdown of order and how average people somehow found a way to keep going. And he thought about how to bring down this system without harming a population that had already suffered so much. These latter reflections were the most dangerous, but they nourished him on days when there was only a handful of millet and a few scraps of pickled cabbage to eat.
But here in the south, where all thoughts were permissible, how could anyone think? His mind was suddenly aswarm with sensory perceptions. Yongin could hear a deep bass boom of dance music as it traveled up the elevator shaft from the bar in the basement. In the next room, the bedsprings squeaked and the headboard kept beat with the music outside. The smell of the air freshener, an artificial pine scent, lingered in the air, though he’d thrown the plastic dispenser into the garbage pail in the hall. Everything in the south conspired against thought. Ideas seemed to fray at the edges, becoming more ragged and shapeless until they finally unraveled into a tangle of incoherence. He had merely wanted to sit quietly and think a few moments before reporting to the agency. The hotel was simply too noisy, and neither the restaurant nor the bar had been suitable.
Now that he was in the south again, he wished he could talk it over with someone. That truly was the worst part of the impersonation. He could never speak freely. He could never break cover. He always had to stick to the script. As they said up north, if you close your eyes, your nose will be bitten off.
In the south, the only person that he could ever talk freely with was his handler. It had been such a relief three years ago to spend the better part of the night drinking and talking with the man.
“Why do we do it?” Yongin asked the man whom he only knew as Lee.
“Why does anyone do anything?”
They’d been in one of those tiny drinking spots hidden away in an alley in Insadong. They were sharing an earthenware bowl of dongdongju, the milky rice wine that farmers used to quench their thirst during the long hot days of the harvest. The remains of a seafood pancake lay between them.
Hidden drinking spot. Photo: John Feffer.
“But this is different,” Yongin insisted. “We risk our lives. And for what?”
Lee ladled more of the alcohol into Yongin’s cup. “It’s no different. People risk their lives for money. For fame. It’s all gone when they’re dead.”
“Some guys do it to feel more alive, right?”
Lee nodded. “It is like an extreme sport. But that’s not you.”
“No, it’s not.”
“You do this to make a difference.”
Yongin looked into his cup. “Is that naïve of me?”
Lee shrugged. He was a jowly, heavyset man who moved slowly but could make assessments very quickly. “It’s best not to become too attached to anything.”
“You’ve become a Buddhist?”
“A professional Buddhist, perhaps.”
“You’re reminding me that there’s no real attachment between you and me.”
Yongin looked up at his handler and saw what might have been sadness in his eyes, or regret, or simply exhaustion.
Recalling this conversation, Yongin suddenly knew where he had to go. It was the obvious place, except that it wasn’t obvious to someone who’d spent the previous three years in the north.
Several minutes after Yongin walked out the back of the hotel, his key in his pocket along with his scant valuables, four young men in sports jackets and sunglasses ducked under the plastic fringe out front. Two men remained near the entrance, a second caught the eye of the proprietor and raised a finger to his lips, and a fourth beckoned for the guest book. He placed a gloved finger next to the name Ahn Chanho and looked at the wall of keys behind the proprietor. The key for Room 314 was missing. Leaving their colleagues by the entrance, the two men quickly but quietly climbed the stairs to the third floor.
At Room 314, they drew their guns. One of them delivered a strong kick to the door just beneath the knob. It took them only a few seconds to scan the room for clues.
Then they returned downstairs.
The proprietor confessed that he didn’t see his only unaccompanied guest leave. He gave them the few details that he could remember – the time the man arrived, what he was wearing, his lack of luggage of any kind.
The four men thanked the proprietor for his help. Then one of them removed his gun and shot the man in the head. They dragged the body into the room behind the front desk, wiped the wall clean of blood and skull fragments, and returned to the street to resume their search.