Brian Bayport The Pyongyang Pictures

Excerpt: Decision

Matt Danner and his partner Tom Yamaguchi are in Pyongyang, posing as a video crew shooting a performance by a Canadian-Korean rapper named Kim KaBim. They are staying in a hotel, under surveillance by the Korean National Security Agency and the Supreme Leader's fanatical security force, the Shadows.

Gooch began watching for Park Kwan’s car. He was supposed to pick us up at nine to go to the airport. We were going to shoot the welcome for Kim KaBim’s group

"Look at this, no rush hour. I’ve seen maybe three cars. Ah, hold on. It’s him."

Our minder entered without knocking and managed a smile as he announced, "Bring your bags. You will be moving to the hotel where Kim KaBim and his group will stay."

This seemed to be good news, but there was something different about Park’s tone, a subtle change that caused Gooch to use one of the speech code phrases.

"We may have a slight problem with the number one amp. The gain pot is noisy."

Translation: Park may be onto us.

"Probably just dirty. If we have a problem, we’ll fix it in post."

Gooch nodded but didn't smile. I didn't smile either—I trust my partner's intuition.

Our ride was another Land Cruiser. This one had a different ID number and driver. He was unusually tall for a Korean and he cast a large shadow over the vehicle. 

This doesn’t look good. Maybe Gooch is right.

As part of our training, we had watched a video showing Korean facial expressions; most of them looked the same to us. We didn’t need a video to pick up on the driver’s contempt. He folded his arms and glared as we loaded our bags and equipment into the Toyota. As he was getting in, I saw a bulge under his jacket and the thought came: They’re going to take us to the countryside and kill us.

We had been warned about becoming too paranoid. Fear of the unknown can do that, especially in hostile territory. Even if the driver was a Shadow, it didn’t automatically mean we were in trouble. It might be standard procedure to keep an eye on anyone scheduled for an audience with the Supreme Leader. Still, I couldn’t help but remember something Dana Hara had said about the Shadows during a briefing: "If you see one, it’s already too late."

I had a bad case of the maybes.

Maybe the Koreans had tracked down the real Jose McPherson and Sato, and had them in a basement somewhere. 

Maybe the Koreans know who we really are. 

Maybe they grabbed Soo Min in Singapore and made her talk.

Bottom line: we didn’t know if the NSA thought we were enemy spies, threats to their Supreme Leader, their young god king. The kind of threats the Shadows throw off a cliff, so they could say we had been in a car accident. 

It could happen. Somewhere on the empty road to the airport, Park could smile his fake smile and tell us the plane had been delayed, and we were going to make a small detour so I could take video of one of Korea’s most beautiful landscapes, a canyon so spectacular that it needed to be part of our video.

And we would go. We would be trapped in the car, with only denial keeping us from taking necessary action. We would sit there, inventing reasons why a ruthless man, a Shadow bred for complete obedience to his god, might stand aside while Park gestured to the canyon, and smiled, and let us make beautiful images.

It could happen another way. I could be looking through the viewfinder when I sensed the approach, the looming presence behind me, the hands on my collar and my belt, the slight grunt as he took up my weight, the smell of kimchi and the rush of air, my last impressions of life before the terrible rocks ended it. It could happen. This was the DPRK, where anything could happen.

We were moving out of the city of Pyongyang. If the deadly detour was going to happen, it would happen just minutes from now, before we reached the airport.

Gooch had the same concern. He sat there, silent and pale, shaking his head from side to side as if to say, This isn’t happening.

But it was happening. Maybe.

I remembered one of our self defense instructors saying, "You can’t just sit there, waiting for an attack. You must anticipate trouble, and plan for the moves you’re going to have to make, whether you want to or not. You can’t let danger immobilize you." 

I had to do something to shake Gooch out of his paralysis

"So, Spaceman, you ready for the big show?"

He shook his head no. I kept trying.

"You know who would really dig this trip? Billy. Billy would love this place."

Gooch got the message. He sat up a little straighter and began looking around. Behind the seat, he gave me a thumbs up. 

"Yeah, Billy would dig it. Billy Numbers. Crazy good horn player."

Gooch was remembering the day we spent in a blocked-off portion of the parking lot at headquarters. Billy came in from the farm to teach us how to attack and defend in an automobile. Every move had a number, and we worked hard to learn those numbers. I remembered his basic advice: "If you think you’re going to have to fight, don’t get in the car."

Gooch had been mildly amused as he pretended to kill and maim the practice dummies; Billy didn’t lean on him, having read his file. Since I was a "made man," as they say in the mob, I was expected to attack the dummies with more lethal enthusiasm. Afterward, we had dismissed the training as something we probably wouldn’t have to use. Now, in the car with the tense vibes, we weren’t so sure, but we had to plan anyway.

We considered possible actions by nodding toward the two up front and showing numbers with our fingers. This looked like a number three situation, and number three was a tough one to pull off.

If we decided to go with a number three attack, Gooch would reach over the seat with a loop of the special audio cable and try to strangle the driver. I saw two problems with that: the driver’s heavily muscled neck, and the fact that Thomas Yamaguchi, future doctor, was not a stone killer. 

If we were so desperate, so convinced that we absolutely needed to kill or be killed, we’d try the number three. During our attempt, the car would lose control and probably crash into one of the sturdy statues of Kim Jong Il. If they had a backup team following us, Gooch and I would be trying to escape a mangled, and possibly burning, Toyota while the team stood around, joking in Korean. 

If we had to attack, my job—and I had to think of it as that—would be to take out Park with a chop to the vulnerable part of his neck. 

It seemed like a long time since Billy had shown me the lethal move, and I was awkward in practice. Also, the training car didn’t have headrests on the seats, but the Land Cruiser had big wide ones. They would make it difficult and time consuming for me to reach around. 

I had to assume that Park Kwan was armed. He might have a gun in hand, under his coat, ready to react quickly. Park had turned in his seat, so he could watch us in his peripheral vision without being too obvious about it. As soon as he saw Gooch’s wire loop appear over the seat back, Park would start shooting, if I was half a second late with my attack.

The big question, the life-or-death question, was How do we know if we have to make a move? 

I could tell Gooch was listening intently to what little the Koreans said, even as he pointed out sights we didn’t have in Toronto. I tried to remember the list of Korean danger words, but anxiety was blocking my memory. 

We had to assume that Park had issued his orders to the driver before they picked us up, and he only needed to use execute words when it was time to execute the plan, and maybe the less-than-clever spies.

If Park assumed he was dealing with operations officers who spoke his language, he wasn’t going to say, "Pull over. We’ll kill them here." Instead, he would say something innocuous like, "Stop at the next statue," and we wouldn’t know what he intended. We couldn’t try a risky attack if they just wanted us to take more video of a statue. 

We were relying on Yamaguchi’s imperfect knowledge of Korean to make a split-second decision that could end the operation, and maybe our lives.

"The airport is not far now."

Was Park providing useful information, or trying to relax us, make us drop our guard? Billy said they would do that.

Gooch appeared to be asking how we would cover KaBim’s arrival.

"You want me to grab some wild sound, stuff like crowd noise?"

I appeared to be thinking about my answer as Gooch reached into the equipment bag at his feet. I didn’t look, but I knew he was removing a short cable, one of the special ones with big XLR connectors that acted as handles. He was quietly forming a loop. 

I turned slightly, preparing to answer the question, but also to assume a better position for the strike around the headrest. I stroked my chin, bringing my hand into a raised position for a possible strike. If Koreans did the chin stroking gesture to signal thinking, it would seem natural. If they didn’t, the move would arouse suspicion. 

"I dunno. We can decide when we get there. Might not have a crowd to deal with."

We waited like that, for what seemed like minutes, ready to try something desperate and perhaps suicidal, until we heard Park say, "Ah, there’s the airport now."

Gooch slowly lowered his cable weapon. I stroked my chin a bit more, then rubbed my neck, so I didn’t have to show Park that my hand was trembling.

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