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Five Nights in Pyongyang: Inside the secret brothel of North

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May 5th, 2017
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  1. Part 1:
  3. Journalist Chu Jingyi travelled to North Korea in January 2016, assuming the identity of a Chinese executive looking to source raw materials from the rogue nation. During his six-day visit, Chu was exposed to some of the most closely-guarded secrets of North Korean society, which few foreign observers have experienced. Among which, the most extraordinary was a visit to a hidden brothel in the lower levels of a Pyongyang building. In this first part of an exclusive three-part series, Chu shares his story as he arrives in Pyongyang and proceeds to explore the mystery of the Pothonggang Hotel’s basement.
  5. The customs official at Pyongyang’s gleaming new, empty international airport flipped through my counterfeit passport carefully before stamping my visa. “Welcome to North Korea,” he said, speaking Korean, but I didn’t acknowledge I had understood him. It was a key part of my assumed identity for this trip; I was no longer an investigative journalist, but instead a purchasing manager at a state-owned power plant in China’s Liaoning Province. My cover was that I was traveling to North Korea to negotiate a new contract for the supply of coal briquettes, a product which comprised almost half of the rogue nation’s exports in 2013. In reality, I was on an assignment to investigate a rumour I had heard on a previous visit: that there was a hidden brothel in Pyongyang that was frequented by members of the North Korean elite.
  7. As I entered the arrivals hall of the airport, I was met immediately by Jang Wong-Yon, a 43-year old DPRK official who was to be my guide and minder for the duration of my time in North Korea. Jang spoke almost perfect Mandarin and was also billeted as my translator for the upcoming negotiations. While I could speak near-fluent Korean courtesy of my time as a correspondent based in Seoul, it was essential I didn’t let this become known by anyone in North Korea. I had assumed the identity of a real power plant executive, and it was almost certain the DRPK security bureau had done their research into the history of my assumed identity. Luckily, I was a good physical match for my cover, with both of us around the same height and weight. The only area of concern was my knowledge of the energy industry; I had spent the month leading up to the assignment shadowing a real employee of a Chinese state-owned power plant under the pretence of publishing an article on China’s energy industry, but there was a limit to how many questions I could ask.
  9. Jang was somewhat distant on our ride from the airport to our hotel in downtown Pyongyang. On my last visit to the country in 2012, the guides assigned to our tour group were also cold and indifferent to our attempts at conversation. Jang filled a similar mould; helpful enough, but reluctant to get too involved with the foreigners he was charged with minding. There was, however, no doubt that Jang was under strict instructions from his superiors to ensure the negotiations went well, as Chinese coal imports from North Korea had declined well over 20% YoY in 2015. If the trend continues this year, North Korea’s export value could easily sink to below US$3 bn, widening the already-large negative trade balance and limiting one of the few-remaining revenue streams available. Thus, my cover story as a purchasing manager for a coal-based power plant was perfect: my hosts would be desperate to ensure I enjoyed my brief stay in the nation, and it would give them more reasons to invite me to the mysterious brothel, if it did, in fact, exist.
  11. I had first heard of rumours about a secret brothel in Pyongyang in 2010, on my first visit to the country. On that occasion, I had been staying at the Pothonggang Hotel, one of the smaller hotels in the capital and less-commonly used by tourists. My tour group had initially been booked into the larger Yanggakdo Hotel, but a surge of guests for the annual Arirang Mass Games had forced our reservations to be switched to the Pothonggang. I was thrilled at the change of plans, as I knew the chances of seeing the ‘real’ North Korea, and not the manipulated propaganda version, were likely to be higher. On my second night, I woke at around 2am and decided to try and sneak down from my room on the 7th floor to see if I could slip past the ever-present security guards and venture out to the streets of Pyongyang. Walking down the building’s central fire escape stairs, I had reached the third floor when I heard voices approaching from below. Fearful of detection by guards and risking a stint in a North Korean gulag, I pressed myself into an alcove and prayed I would not be discovered in the dimly-lit stairwell.
  13. My prayers were indeed answered, as a pair of heavily-intoxicated North Korean men stumbled right past me without glancing into my hiding spot. In the darkness, I was just able to discern that both men wore the uniform of the Korean People’s Army, and the twin stars on their shoulders signified they held the rank of Lieutenant Generals – placing them in the upper-echelons of the armed service. I focused my hearing to decipher as much of their conversation as possible, impaired greatly by drink and the heavy North Korean accents. “The new girl is not very good,” I heard one say, prompting a round of laughter from the other man. “I warned you,” he replied. “She hasn’t been broken in yet; give her a few more months.” This earned a fresh bout of laughter from his companion. “I should’ve listened to you and stuck with the Japanese girl.” There was the sound of a creaking door as the pair reached their level, and then silence after it slammed shut.
  15. My mind raced as I replayed the conversation in my mind. The logical conclusion was that the men had just returned from a visit to a brothel, and the fact that they were taking the internal staircase of the hotel rather than the elevator implied it could be located in the basement of the building. I already knew there was a B1 level, which featured a small bar and some pool tables, but the conversation I had just heard suggested there were more floors below that which could not be accessed via the building’s lift. My first reaction was to go directly to the bottom of the staircase and investigate further, but I ultimately decided against this. If there was such an establishment below B1, it would no doubt be well-guarded and strictly off limits for a tourist such as myself. Even if I was able to sneak past the guards, the employees at the premises would immediately sound the alarm if an interloper was detected. Instead, I crept back to my hotel room where I spent the night formulating a plan to investigate further.
  17. I soon realized that there would be no opportunity to explore the basement on that trip; there was no excuse for a tourist to be wandering unaccompanied in a restricted part of the hotel, and if I was caught I would only be rewarded with a sentence of hard labour for my troubles. Instead, I resolved to return to North Korea in future if I could adopt a suitable cover story to gain access. Over the intervening years, while I did return in 2012 to cover the transition of power following the death of Kim Jong Il, I had struggled to conceive of a false persona that would permit me to get anywhere near the basement of the Pothonggang Hotel. That was, until late 2015, when an article concerning North Korea’s falling coal exports caught my attention.
  19. When planning my latest trip to Pyongyang, I hit an early snag – the government official I was dealing with was adamant I should book myself into the Yanggakdo Hotel, instead of the Pothonggang. “We would request our most honoured guest to stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel, as it is a more luxury venue befitting an important visitor,” he pleaded, after I had expressed a preference for the Pothonggang. I had to think quickly to avoid missing out on my opportunity to investigate the basement. “I cannot stand the tour groups at the Yanggakdo; so full of annoying Western tourists. It will distract me from my negotiations,” I demanded. “Besides, the office of the coal producer is just a short walk from the Pothonggang, so it will serve my purpose well.” Reluctantly, the official accepted my request, and I was rewarded with a hotel booking for a five-night stay at the Pothonggang.
  21. As we were driven through the streets of Pyongyang, Jang, my host, discussed the itinerary for the coming days. “This evening you have an invitation to dine with the director and senior managers of the DPRK Coal Mining Group,” he informed me. “The dinner is being held at a restaurant close to your hotel which serves traditional Korean cuisine.” I nodded, having well-expected the invitation ahead of the first full day of negotiations. “Please inform them that I graciously accept the invitation and look forward to dining with them.” I wanted to ask Jang if there were any after-dinner activities planned, but decided against this in order to avoid raising suspicions. We passed the final kilometres to the hotel discussing the agenda for the following day’s negotiation meeting.
  23. The driver pulled up at the foyer of the Pothonggang Hotel and Jang summoned a bellhop to assist with my luggage. We approached the check-in counter and I was relieved that none of the staff on duty resembled those who had manned the front desk on my first visit back in 2010. “Welcome to the Pothonggang Hotel Mr Chu,” said the clerk in fluent Mandarin, who was a young Korean woman of about 25, by my estimate. “We trust you will have a pleasant stay.” I certainly will if I find out what’s in your basement, I thought. The clerk passed across two keys for adjoining rooms on the 9th floor of the hotel. Jang turned to the clerk and spoke rapidly in Korean “This guy is important; the listening devices in his room better be working or there’ll be hell to pay.” The clerk responded just as fast but with a pleasant tone that belied her grim message. “Don’t worry, I already warned the housekeeper if there’s any trouble, she’ll be shipped off to Yodok”. I had to fight to avoid the involuntary grimace that would normally cloud my face on hearing the name of North Korea’s most infamous prison camp.
  25. Jang and I rode up to the 9th floor together, where he accompanied me to my room. “Shall we meet in the lobby at 7?” he asked. I nodded my agreement and closed the door, sinking into the armchair and relaxing for the first time since I had boarded the Air Koryo Tu-204 in Beijing earlier that day. I had expected my room to be bugged, but was grateful to learn it was only with listening surveillance, rather than video. The time was 3pm, and I had a feeling it was going to be a long night, so I decided the best course of action was to play the role of stressed businessman and take a nap for several hours.
  27. I awoke at 6 PM and showered before changing into a fresh outfit, and was not overly surprised to walk into the hallway just as Jang emerged from his own room. “Good timing,” he noted, leaving me with little doubt that the listening devices in my room were functioning perfectly. As we rode the lift down to the lobby, Jang informed me of the most important guests who would be joining us this evening. “The director of DPRK Coal is Ha Jun-Suk, who is a 38-year veteran of the industry. He speaks little Mandarin, so I will translate for you.” I nodded, grateful not for the first time that I secretly understood Korean. Jang continued by introducing the DPRK Coal Export Manager, Gyeong Ji-Hu. “Gyeong is in his mid-forties and is the contact you’ll be dealing with directly in your negotiations,” said Jang. “I know he loves to drink, so don’t be surprised if he’s constantly ordering you to finish your soju at the dinner.” This was an interesting fact, and one that would be useful in my plans for the evening.
  29. We walked for no more than five minutes from the Pothonggang Hotel before arriving at our destination, the Chongryu Restaurant, set alongside the Potong River. I had actually dined at this venue on my last visit; it is a popular tourist spot given its prime location next to the Pyongyang Ice Rink. I was a little surprised at the choice of restaurant as the Chongryu struck me as a fairly poor site for an executive business dinner, but we were ushered into a private dining room at the rear of the venue that was decorated in far more luxurious manner. Jang introduced me to the DPRK Coal staff who had already arrived, and we all went through the time-honoured rituals of handshakes and exchanging business cards that exist even in a country as isolated as North Korea. I was seated between Ha Jun-Suk and Jang to allow him to translate our conversations, while Gyeong Ji-Hu was positioned to the left of Jang. The enormity of my deception finally dawned on me: if I made any false steps from this point in, my immediate future would consist of a very long stretch in a prison camp, and that was the most optimistic outlook.
  31. However, I needn’t have spent too much time worrying, as the mood among the DRPK Coal managers was buoyant. No doubt they had been instructed to welcome the potential coal buyer with their best manners, and shortly after our arrival a long stream of waiters passed through the room carrying plates of steaming dishes and large bottles of soju. In my past visits to North Korea, I had been disappointed with the cuisine, but the food on offer this evening wouldn’t have been out of place at a Michelin-starred restaurant in any Western capital. True to his reputation, Gyeong eagerly insisted on topping up my soju glass whenever it dipped below completely full, and Jang himself relented and joined in the festivities, something I knew was strictly against the rules of his employment as an official minder of foreign guests. I was regaled by plenty of stories of the coal industry by Ha, dutifully translated by Jang, although with my knowledge of Korean I was surprised on several occasions when Ha threw in racial slurs critical of the Chinese, which Jang took care to avoid translating. It was approaching 10 PM before the food started to show any signs of slowing down from the kitchen.
  33. It was at this point I decided to put my cards on the table. “This has been an excellent meal gentleman,” I proclaimed, which earned a wide grin from Ha as Jang translated my compliment. “And, I have never enjoyed a soju as much as this fine vintage,” which prompted Gyeong to raise another toast. “It would be a shame to end the night so early,” I added, careful not to overstep the mark. “That is, of course, if you gentleman are not too tired.” Despite clear evidence to the contrary from some of the older men at the table, all protested that they were perfectly full of energy and willing to continue on with our festivities. Gyeong, speaking Korean for the first time all evening, asked Jang if it was OK to proceed to the bar at the Pothonggang Hotel for more drinks, which Jang accepted, although with some hesitation. “Tomorrow’s meeting starts at 9:00 AM,” he warned Gyeong in Korean. “I want him back in his room by midnight at the latest.” To me, in Mandarin, Gyeong said: “It is decided, we will return to your hotel for more drinks.”
  35. On the walk back to the Pothonggang, I had some elements of doubt race through my mind. What if I was wrong about what I heard that night back in 2010? What if the lieutenant generals had been returning from some other venue, and were just taking the stairs to avoid causing a disturbance? It was too late to back out now, and either way, I would soon find out what lay beneath the Pothonggang. My drinking companions and I filled most of the hotel’s small bar on B1, and the barman was hard at work pouring munbaeju, a far stronger beverage than the soju we had been enjoying at the Chongryu Restaurant earlier. I noted how ironic it was that we were gathered on B1, just meters above whatever mysteries lay in the levels below. Gyeong ensured all glasses were topped up to the brim before raising his own for a toast. “To our most distinguished Chinese guest,” he announced in Mandarin, before switching to Korean “I hope you buy a million tonnes of our coal”, earning laughter and cheers from his colleagues as they downed their glasses. Not for the first time, I was grateful for the fact that I have a high alcohol tolerance, although even that was being sorely tested by the night’s consumption.
  37. An hour after our arrival at the Pothonggang bar, several of the older members of the DPRK Coal team, including Director Ha, offered their sincere apologies and bid us farewell for the evening, noting that drinking was a younger man’s game and that they needed a good night’s rest before the following day’s negotiations. I was worried at first this would trigger a domino effect with everyone calling it a night, but Gyeong and a loyal bunch of three younger managers decided to stay on. Jang looked unhappy and suggested to Gyeong that it was getting quite late, but Gyeong easily dismissed him, noting that if the coal contract fell through it would all be on Jang’s head. The alcohol must have been having some effect on me, because I almost said “Don’t worry Jang!” in Korean, but quickly stopped myself; I shudder to think what would have happened if they had learned I could speak their language fluently.
  39. Gyeong got up and announced he needed a visit to the men’s room; realizing this would be a good opportunity to talk to him without Jang’s presence, I said I also needed to go. Jang looked as if he would about to join us, but he obviously thought it would be too suspicious and opted to remain at the bar. I realized that no matter how much alcohol Jang consumed, he would steadfastly prevent me from learning of anything related to a secret brothel that would embarrass his bosses. If I was to discover what was hidden beneath the Pothonggang, I needed Gyeong’s help.
  41. At that moment, he was busy relieving himself. “So you enjoy our liquor?” he asked, mid-stream. “Yes, the munbaeju is truly exceptional,” I declared, joining him at an adjacent urinal. “You can handle your drinks well,” he observed, and I returned the compliment. “Tell me, Gyeong,” I continued, as we walked over to the hand basins. “I feel like it’s too early to call it a night. There must be something more exciting we can do than sit around at the bar all night and listen to Jang complaining like an old woman.” This was met with a hearty round of laughter from Gyeong. “You are right, Mr Chu. Jang is worse than my nagging mother-in-law.” He waved under the hand dryer’s vent several times and then slapped it firmly when it failed to produce any hot air. “There is one place we could go, but Jang definitely wouldn’t approve.” He observed my expression carefully, and I realized I had to play my cards just right. “Jang wouldn’t need to know, necessarily,” I ventured. Gyeong nodded, but didn’t say anything. I decided to test my luck further. “I’m not sure Jang stands to lose anything if we can’t agree on a contract.” Gyeong pondered that, and replied “You are right, Mr Chu. If you were to meet me in the lobby one hour from now, after Jang has fallen asleep, I would expect no harm would come of it.”
  43. We returned to the bar to find that the remaining DPRK Coal managers had taken the opportunity to leave. “They have returned home to get some rest before tomorrow’s meetings,” said Jang. No doubt at your request, I thought. “And now I believe would be a good time for us to do the same.” Gyeong nodded, and bid farewell to both of us. “Have a good rest, Mr Chu,” he said, as he shook my hand, and I was grateful that he didn’t give any sign of our arrangement to Jang. We watched as Gyeong strode out of the lobby into the darkness. “I trust you had a good evening,” said Jang. I nodded my agreement and we walked to the elevator.
  45. Back in my room, I checked the time carefully – thirty minutes had elapsed since Gyeong had told me to meet him, so I had limited opportunity to prepare for what the night would bring. I was grateful again that there was no video surveillance in my room, otherwise there was no doubt that Jang or some of his colleagues would immediately be suspicious that I had my ear pressed up against the wall. Sure enough, I soon heard the rhythmic snoring of a drunken man, so I was confident that Jang had succumbed to a deep sleep. All that was left was to proceed down to the lobby of the Pothonggang undetected to meet up with Gyeong.
  47. No sooner had I stepped through my door, I was immediately seized by a firm grasp and a hand was slapped over my mouth. In that instant, I was convinced my cover had been blown and I was about to be sent to the nearest prison camp to begin my sentence of 30-years hard labour. However, I calmed down immediately when I heard Gyeong whisper “Quiet” in my ear, before releasing me from his grasp. “Follow me,” he whispered, and I did exactly that as we walked across to the fire escape – the same one that I had snuck down in 2010 which ultimately led me to return here seven years later. Once safely within the staircase, Gyeong explained the reason for the subterfuge.
  49. “I couldn’t have you coming down to the lobby,” he said. “There are two security guards there who would have instantly arrested you.” I was grateful for Gyeong’s foresight, which was remarkably unimpaired by the amount of liquor he had consumed throughout the evening. “It’s a pity we have to sneak around in the shadows like ghosts, but I’m afraid it’s just the way things are in the DPRK where foreign guests are concerned.” I was surprised by his candour, but then he was taking a big enough risk to escort me outside the supervision of my state-appointed minder that nothing could make his situation worse if caught. “Thank you Gyeong,” I said. He shrugged as if it were no big deal. “We need this contract, so I’m only doing what’s in the best interests of my country, even if our leaders would disagree.” I felt bad to be deceiving Gyeong, as he would surely be given the blame later once it became clear that I was an imposter, and I resolved to do what I could to arrange his safe passage from North Korea at a later date.
  51. For the moment, though, it was time to learn if all the risks I had taken up to this point were worthwhile. Just what, exactly, was in the basement of the Pothonggang Hotel? “So what do you have in mind for the rest of the night?” I asked. Gyeong grinned as he replied. “I think you’ll enjoy this.”
  53. Part 2:
  55. My mind was racing as I followed Gyeong Ji-Hu down the stairs of the Pothonggang Hotel’s fire escape. What would we find in the basement of the building? Would it be, as I had assumed, a secret brothel? Would it even still be there now, six years since I had first crouched in a dark alcove of this very staircase and overheard a conversation between two North Korean army generals? I was so distracted by these thoughts that I nearly crashed into the back of Gyeong, who had come to an abrupt halt without any advance warning. He motioned for me to be quiet and craned his head out over the railing of the staircase. After a minute of silence, he turned and whispered: “It’s OK. I thought I heard something. Let’s keep going.” Not for the first time I was reminded of the enormous risks that both Gyeong and I were taking by even being here. In the hotel room next to my own on the ninth floor, my official DPRK minder for this trip, Jang Wong-Yon, was hopefully still sound asleep in a drunken slumber. If he were to wake and discover my absence, the alarm would be sounded immediately and my chances of ever leaving North Korea would take a severe blow. I tried to clear these thoughts from my mind and focus on remaining silent as we descended further down the staircase.
  57. We had reached the second floor when we heard a door slam shut several floors above us. “Run!” Gyeong whispered loudly, and I wasted no time in following his order. We raced down the stairs as quietly as possible until we reached the bottom of the staircase. Here, Gyeong swiftly pulled the door open and bundled me through into a large, dark space. “Where are we?” I asked, as Gyeong continued to direct me through the darkness. He didn’t reply, but continued to lead me forward until we swung behind a large column. “Get down” he hissed, and we had only been there for a few moments when the door we had just emerged from creaked open and a beam of light pierced the blackness. This is it, I thought. All this trouble and my only reward is to be sent directly to a prison camp. The narrow band of light waved around the room for a few moments, and I felt Gyeong tense up, but all of a sudden it flicked off, soon to be followed by the sound of the door slamming shut. Gyeong and I both breathed a sigh of relief, knowing full-well how close we had come to detection.
  59. From the brief glimpses I had of the area while it was lit by the flashlight, I determined that we were in the hotel’s loading dock. This was confirmed as I followed Gyeong past several fully-loaded dumpsters and a forklift. “This way,” he whispered, as we approached a ramp leading upwards. As we progressed, the area became progressively better lit and I realized the air was fresher; we must have been getting close to the ground-level exit to the dock. I wanted to ask Gyeong where we were going, but he abruptly stopped again. Over his shoulder, I could see the reason: a small guardhouse was positioned at the top of the ramp, and the faint sound of music emanated from within. “Don’t worry,” whispered Gyeong, “If he’s still awake it’ll be a miracle.” Sure enough, as we crept closer to the guardhouse, we could hear the music was punctuated by the regular snoring of the guard. Even so, we ducked our heads as we passed by the window and ventured out into the night.
  61. So there isn’t anything hidden in the basement? I was confused as I followed Gyeong down a dark alley behind the hotel, which soon turned into a side street. I glanced at my watch to check the time: it was 1:28 AM. “Where are we going?” I asked, hoping that Gyeong would explain what had compelled him to take me on this risky tour of Pyongyang by night. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.” We turned left down another side street, and the right onto another, and I followed Gyeong for several hundred metres down this street before he took a left down a narrow alleyway. There was a doorway at the end, and a tall man was standing outside smoking a cigarette. Oh great, I thought. We’d come all this way just to get caught before Gyeong could show me whatever he’d been planning to. The man flicked his cigarette into the gutter and barked out heavily-accented Korean at us. “Comrade Gyeong, who is this man?” he demanded, pointing at me with an unpleasant expression. To me, Gyeong whispered: “Don’t say a word.” I was only too happy to follow that instruction.
  64. “Comrade Mun, show some manners when addressing our honoured guest,” said Gyeong. “Mr Chu is an important businessman from China, and it would be best if you treated him with the full respect he deserves.” Mun was far from satisfied with this answer. “You know full well no foreigners are meant to be brought here,” he exclaimed, “The chairman would have your neck if he learned of this disobedience.” Gyeong surprised me by chuckling. “I have no doubt he would have yours too, Mun, if he discovered your secret liaisons with Comrade Jeon.” Mun’s face darkened and he switched his glare from me to Gyeong, who continued talking. “If you have any brains inside that ugly head of yours, you’ll let us pass right now.” I didn’t think insulting the tall man was a smart move, even if he was quite unattractive. Despite the poor illumination of the alley, I could still see Mun’s face turn red with anger, and he appeared to be debating whether to step forward and strike Gyeong. Thankfully he chose not to, but it was clear that it was a decision he made after some consideration. “Fine, but if anything happens it’ll all be on your head.”
  66. Mun fetched a key from his coat pocket and unlocked the door before swinging it open. “Come on, before he changes his mind,” whispered Gyeong. As we walked past Mun, he glared at me again as if I was his mortal enemy, but he didn’t make any further comments. As we crossed the threshold into the building the door slammed shut behind us, followed by the sound of Mun’s key turning in the lock. I was grateful to no longer be in the presence of Comrade Mun, who had left me questioning whether my endeavours to investigate North Korea’s secrets were such a worthy enterprise.
  68. My doubts continued as I followed Gyeong further into the building. The room we had stepped into was small and sparsely decorated, with no windows and a short staircase leading up to a doorway. Was this an interrogation facility? I pondered. Or worse, was it an execution chamber? Gyeong could sense my nervousness and stopped to placate me. “I apologise again for all the sneaking around, Mr Chu,” he offered, “But we have reached our destination.” I opened my mouth to ask him where we were, exactly, but he’d already turned to walk up the stairs. With a locked door to my rear, the only option was to follow him onwards into the mysterious building. Gyeong paused at the top of the stairs and pressed a button to the side of the handle. The sound of chimes from beyond the door could be heard, followed by a click as the lock mechanism released. “You see, Mr Chu, there’s really no other place quite like this in Pyongyang, or anywhere else in North Korea, for that matter.”
  70. Gyeong swung open the door and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the room beyond. When my vision cleared, I was immediately struck by the opulence of it all; after our long and arduous journey through the loading dock and the back alleys behind the hotel, it was a sharp contrast to suddenly be in this grandly-decorated space. The room itself was large, perhaps the size of the Pothonggang Hotel’s lobby, and the walls were draped with the most magnificent curtains, which were a dark-purple velvet and embossed with intricate patterns of golden stitching. The floor was polished marble, waxed to a high sheen so that it perfectly reflected the crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. In the centre of the room, above an ornate Turkish rug, was a ridiculously large lounge suite, and nestled among the silk cushions was one of the most enormous women I have ever laid eyes upon. She turned to us as we entered the room. “Ah, Ji-Hu,” she said, in an unexpectedly delicate voice. “Back again so soon?”
  72. Ji-Hu, or Gyeong, as he was more commonly referred to, grinned broadly. “You know me, Sook-Ja,” he said, “I have trouble keeping away.” This prompted the enormous woman to laugh merrily, although she stopped abruptly once she spotted me. “Well, well, well,” she said. “This is a first for you Ji-Hu,” she declared. “You’ve never brought a friend along before, and a most-handsome one, at that. Who is this gentleman?” Gyeong introduced me as he had done with Mun downstairs, although Sook-Ja appeared much more agreeable to my presence. “We’ve haven’t had a Chinese visitor for many years,” she said in Korean, before adding, in passable Mandarin: “Welcome to our little home, Mr Chu. I do trust you will enjoy yourself here.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded my head in what I hoped was a gesture of respect. “Oh, he’s so adorable,” squealed Sook-Ja, and she motioned for us to come and join her on the lounge. “Shall I send for a bottle of your favourite soju? Or I could wake the chef up if you’re feeling hungry; he prepared an excellent samgyeopsal earlier this evening.” To my relief, Gyeong declined her offer. “We have an important meeting later this morning,” he told her, “So I’m afraid our time here is rather short.” Sook-Ja nodded in understanding. “Very well, I will inform Sun-Young that you have arrived, and ask the other girls to come out so your friend can make his selection.”
  74. Finally, I thought. This confirms what I had overheard all those years ago. There really was a secret brothel in Pyongyang! For all the risks, it had been a worthwhile enterprise to get this far and discover the truth. The years of preparation and research had finally paid off, and having my suspicions validated at last came as a welcome relief. At the same time, it suddenly dawned on me that I would have to continue to play my part even now that I had confirmed my theory about the existence of the brothel. To back out at this point would be incredibly suspicious and sow seeds of doubt in Gyeong’s mind after the trouble he had gone to in bringing me here. While I did not particularly look forward to what was going to come next, I knew it was important to continue to remain in character.
  76. My thoughts were interrupted immediately when Gyeong loudly said “No.” Both Sook-Ja and I stared at him, before he continued. “No, tonight I want my honoured guest to enjoy the company of Sun-Young. I want him to experience only the best.” Sook-Ja’s expression shifted to a look of complete surprise. “But Ji-Hu,” she protested. “Never in all the years I have known you…” She was interrupted again by Gyeong. “No, tonight Sun-Young will accompany my guest, and that is final,” he said, with force. Sook-Ja hesitated as though she wanted to convince him otherwise, but eventually she nodded. “As you wish, Ji-Hu. But it is most unusual.” Gyeong merely sat stone-faced and nodded stoically. “Most unusual,” muttered Sook-Ja, and she shook her head.
  78. “What’s happening?” I asked Gyeong, conscious that someone who had no knowledge of Korean would be curious about the exchange that had taken place between the pair. “Don’t they have places like this in China?” he snapped, before adding “I have arranged for you the company of Miss Woon’s most beautiful employee. Please treat her well.” I could sense Gyeong was not particularly happy about offering me he his favourite girl, so I thought it would be wise to at least offer him a way out. “In Shenyang, they usually bring out a number of women so one can make a selection,” I ventured. Gyeong shook his head. “Trust me, you won’t be disappointed with Sun-Young.” His eyes betrayed his true feelings on this matter, but I decided not to press him further lest it cause him to grow suspicious. “Thank you,” I said. “You are truly a most gracious host.” To this, Gyeong did not reply, and I decided it would be better to wait in silence than risk provoking him further.
  80. A sliding door on the far side of the room opened and two young women entered, dressed in pale-pink hanboks, a form of traditional Korean dress. I had not seen how Sook-Ja had summoned them, but beneath the voluminous muumuu she was draped in I suspected she had a buzzer of some sort to communicate with her staff. They approached Sook-Ja first and she whispered some instructions to them that I did not overhear. After she had finished talking to them, she turned to me and spoke in Mandarin once again. “These girls will lead you to Sun-Young’s quarters now. Please follow them, Mr Chu.” The young women turned to me and bowed deeply. “They don’t speak Mandarin, I’m afraid,” added Sook-Ja. I nodded and stood, while Gyeong remained seated on the lounge. “I will rest here a while, you go and enjoy yourself,” he said, and again I detected a trace of hostility in his expression. I debated once more if I should try to make him to change his mind, but he turned back to Sook-Ja and the pair continued their conversation. The two women were already walking towards the sliding door. Time to go, I thought, as I followed them.
  82. Beyond the door was a long corridor decorated in an equally opulent manner to Sook-Ja’s sitting room. My limited knowledge of the world of fine art prevented me from identifying any of the authors of the oil paintings hanging from the walls, but even a complete novice such as myself could tell these were the works of masters. Ahead of me, the women glided along the corridor without a backwards glance, and I had to walk at a brisk pace to keep up with them. The corridor ended in a T-junction, and I followed the women as they turned down the left branch. As we walked down this corridor, I noted that the artwork increased in quality the further we progressed. Finally, we reached the end of the corridor and found ourselves outside a beautifully-carved mahogany door. One of the women produced a key from inside her hanbok and unlocked it. The pair walked inside and I was left in the corridor for a few moments before I decided to join them.
  84. The interior of the room was, as I had expected, designed in a luxurious manner, with the centrepiece being a large, perfectly-round bed with a French-style headboard and covered by an assortment of pillows. The walls were draped by the same velvet curtains that I had seen in the sitting room, and I couldn’t tell if there were windows concealed behind them; I thought not, as it would be a security hazard if unauthorized eyes were to peep in. Against the far wall was a generously-sized jacuzzi which one of the women was filling with water, while the other opened a closet by the foot of the bed and withdrew a large bathrobe. She unfolded it and lay it out on the bed, nodding in my direction which I interpreted as a sign I was expected to wear the garment. She turned away and went to assist her colleague with the bath, selecting some jars of what appeared to be bath salts which she added to the water. I took the opportunity to change into the robe while the women continued to prepare the jacuzzi.
  86. By the time I had changed, the tub was filled with an inviting pile of bubbles and the women were standing at the doorway. They nodded in the direction of the jacuzzi and silently left the room. I walked over to check the door knob and found it had been locked from the outside. Obviously I was not an honoured-enough guest that I could be trusted to roam the corridors unaccompanied. In the absence of anything better to do, I thought, I guess it’s time for a bath. This would prove to be an excellent decision, as I felt all my frayed nerves relax instantly as I sunk into the warm tub. Can’t let my guard down, I warned myself. Even so, I suddenly felt a great sense of exhaustion. The events of the day up to this point had been filled with some of the most risky decisions I had made in my journalistic career, and now that I finally had a quiet moment to myself I was having difficulty fighting the urge to close my eyes. Maybe just a short nap wouldn’t do any harm?
  88. The next thing I remember was feeling a light pressure against my shoulders, and it took a moment for my brain to register that the sensation was from a pair of hands gently massaging my skin. My eyes flicked open and my first thought was that I must have slept for a long time, because the bubbles that had previously been covering the tub had all but disappeared. My next observation was that there was a feminine voice close to my ear, speaking Mandarin without a trace of any accent. “Hello Mr Chu,” said the voice. “Did you have a good rest?” My first reaction was to turn to the source of the voice, but as I started to move my neck in that direction I felt the hands that had been massaging my shoulders slide up and grasp my head. “I have an idea,” she said. “Why don’t you close your eyes for a moment and I’ll join you in the tub.” I sensed it was more of a request than a suggestion, so I nodded my head slowly and shut my eyes.
  90. There was the sound of a light garment dropping to the floor, soon followed by a splash as the jacuzzi water was displaced. “You didn’t peek, did you?” she asked. I had been sorely tempted to, but had stuck to my end of the bargain. “No,” I replied. “That’s good,” she said. “You can open your eyes now.” I did as she requested, and was immediately grateful that the bubbles had mostly dissolved. “Hello,” she said. “I am Sun-Young.”
  92. I have spent countless hours drafting and re-drafting this paragraph of my first impressions of the lovely Sun-Young. Suffice to say, despite my usual abilities with the written word, no combination that I have assembled has come close to capturing even a fraction of her beauty. It was as though an angel of the highest order had descended from the heavens and splashed down right in front of me in the tub. To write that the woman that sat before me was the most beautiful I had ever laid eyes upon would be no exaggeration. I was so captivated by Sun-Young’s perfection that I simply sat there for what felt like an eternity; unable to respond to her introduction or formulate the most basic sentence. Sun-Young’s gentle laughter broke the silence. “Are you OK, Mr Chu. You do speak Mandarin, if I am not mistaken?” She smiled after asking me this, further distracting my attempts to reply. “Yes,” I stuttered. “Yes, I do. I apologize, Sun-Young. Please, call me Jingyi.” Her smile broadened and she held out her a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jingyi.”
  94. I left Sun-Young’s room two hours later, but it felt to me as though no time had passed at all. Indeed, as the pink-hanbok clad women escorted me back to the sitting room, I had to force myself from turning around and running back to her room, because I knew that I would never see her again. The thought depressed me and filled me with a desperate longing that I have never experienced. Simultaneously, I felt a deep anger welling up inside me at the North Korean regime: that they would take someone so lovely and perfect as Sun-Young and force her into this most despicable prison. As we passed the many closed doors along the corridors on our way back to Gyeong & Sook-Ja, I wondered how many other women were trapped here, servants of their evil masters. I struggled to compose myself as the women slid open the door to the sitting room.
  96. “Welcome back Mr Chu,” said Sook-Ja, “I trust everything was to your satisfaction?” She gave me a knowing grin. Gyeong, I noticed, didn’t turn to face me, but instead took a long swig from a bottle of soju which had mysteriously appeared in my absence. “Yes, everything was perfect,” I replied, which prompted Gyeong to drain the bottle of soju and set it down loudly. His behaviour was confusing; if he hated the idea of me spending time with Sun-Young so much, which he clearly did, why had he so vocally demanded that she be my companion? I knew he wanted to do everything possible to get the coal contract signed, but surely no volume of coal would make up for the emotional trauma of sending another man to spend time with a woman such as Sun-Young. The whole thing was starting to bother me, and I felt the paranoia that had evaporated during the last couple of hours start to return.
  98. With some difficulty, Gyeong lifted himself up from the lounge and turned to face me. “It’s almost 5 AM,” he grunted. “We must return to the hotel immediately.” Without waiting for me to reply, he strode off in the direction of the entrance. Sook-Ja raised her hand in my direction as a gesture of farewell. “Goodbye, Mr Chu,” she said, “And good luck for your meeting today.” With the events of the past hours, I had all but forgotten about the coal negotiations that were due to commence at 9 AM. There would be precious little time for sleep by the time we crept back in to the hotel, assuming we were not caught by any early-risers on our return trip. I bid Sook-Ja a quick farewell and sprinted after Gyeong, who was already halfway down the stairs to the ground floor of the building. “Hurry up,” he demanded.
  100. At the front door Gyeong knocked loudly several times, and then cursed after a minute had passed with no response. “Damn it, Mun, have you fallen asleep?” he shouted. Eventually we heard a click and the door swung open slowly. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” said Mun, without the slightest trace of regret. Gyeong was already in a bad mood and this served only to provoke him further, but he wisely chose to ignore Mun’s lack of respect. Instead, Gyeong stormed down the alley at a brisk pace without a backwards glance. I followed him, but stopped a few steps away and turned back to take one final look at the building that housed the brothel. “What are you looking at?” demanded Mun. I quickly turned and continued down the alley trailing closely behind Gyeong.
  102. The journey back to the hotel was uneventful, although I felt my pulse quicken as we approached the loading dock’s guardhouse. Once again, the music was interspersed by the sound of the guard’s snoring and we were able to creep past undetected. Of all the countries to be a lazy security guard, I thought, North Korea was about the worst choice. We descended to the loading dock and I was relieved to see the area remained unlit. Gyeong’s eyesight must have been better than mine as he stealthily navigated the route back to the fire escape in the dark. “I will escort you back to your room,” he whispered, and I was grateful that his earlier bad mood appeared to have dissipated.
  104. We climbed cautiously, with Gyeong pausing several times and listening for signs of anything unusual. Nothing caused him concern, and we arrived back at the ninth floor undetected. “Thank you,” I whispered. “I can make it back to my room from here.” Gyeong shook his head. “There could be guards on patrol,” he said. “Pass me your room key and keep quiet.” I didn’t think it was wise to argue with him, so I followed his instructions as we crept along the corridor. We encountered no guards on our short walk to my room, and Gyeong smoothly inserted the key and twisted the lock without making a sound. He gently pushed open the door and stepped into the room, holding it open for me to pass. “Thank you again,” I said, as we stood in the darkness.
  106. At that moment the light on the side table flicked on, and I turned around in shock. Lying on my bed was a familiar figure. “Hello, Mr Chu,” said Jang Wong-Yon.
  108. Part 3:
  110. Jang Wong-Yon rose from the bed slowly as I stood frozen in place at the entrance to my hotel room. How much does he know? Despite the seriousness of the situation, I felt a spark of hope that the past few hours could be explained away in an innocent manner. “Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing at the armchair in the corner. It was more a command than a suggestion, and I complied. “Shut the door,” he added, and I was confused for a moment why he’d asked me to sit down first before I realized he was talking to Gyeong, who was still standing at the entrance of the room. Gyeong did so in silence and took a seat on the edge of the bed, giving me a stern expression before turning away to face the door. Jang walked over to the window and drew the curtains open, revealing the first signs of light filtering in from a grey Pyongyang dawn. He stood there for some moments, staring out over the dark concrete buildings that stretched out to the horizon. I felt he was waiting for me to say something, but nothing I could conjure up in my mind seemed appropriate, so I just sat there, sweating despite the cold, hoping that somehow everything would be fine. Eventually, he turned to face me, and I could tell from his expression that things were anything but.
  112. “You are an imposter,” he declared, in Korean. “I most certainly am not!” I cried out, and it was a split-second later that I realized I had replied to him in his own language. Gyeong buried his head in his hands and groaned, while Jang offered me a wry smile. “Well maybe I can speak some Korean,” I ventured, trying to recover from the grave I had dug, “But that doesn’t prove anything.” Jang nodded but didn’t appear the slightest bit convinced. “Mr Chu, let us dispense with these games,” he replied, sounding disappointed. “Your cover was blown before you even arrived at Pyongyang Airport.” As way of explanation, he withdrew a cell phone from his coat pocket and waved it in my direction. “I had a chat with the man you are pretending to be while I was waiting for you at the terminal,” he said, and I knew instantly that all hope was lost. “My guess is that you’re a journalist,” he added, and not having much to lose by revealing the truth, I nodded.
  114. I hope it will be a firing squad, I thought, or at least something quick and painless. Now that my secret was exposed, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was dragged away by members of the dreaded State Security Department for a lengthy interrogation, to be followed by an inevitable execution. The DRPK has a history of dealing with people like me, and it never ended well. The only question that remained was why Jang had let things go as far as they had, if he had known since yesterday that I was a fraud. I realized that Gyeong had now disgraced himself by taking me to the brothel, and he would likely suffer the same fate that lay in store for me. I was desperate to at least salvage something from this debacle, so I decided to plea for Gyeong’s life to be spared. “Jang, you are right, I am a journalist,” I began, but Jang cut me off. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, before curiously adding, “In some ways, that is a good thing.” Gyeong laughed sarcastically. “A good thing?” he asked. “How can you say such a thing?” Jang didn’t answer but stared at me intently. “I want to tell you a story,” he said to me, and despite my growing confusion at what was happening, I didn’t try to interrupt him.
  116. When he had finished, almost an hour later, his face was stained-wet with tears, and I knew that I would do everything I could to help him, even if it cost me my life.
  118. As I sat in an empty meeting room of the DPRK Coal Mining Group some hours later, I began to write from memory Jang Wong-Yon’s story onto a pad of paper. I was exhausted, not in the least from having had no sleep the night before, but also from the stress of sitting through the earlier meeting with a room full of eager coal executives. I had asked for some time alone to perform calculations and make calls, and my hosts had readily agreed to this request. It was a relief to finally have some privacy where I could gather my thoughts, but instead of relaxing I felt compelled to commit to paper the entire story that Jang had shared with me earlier that morning. Even if there was only the slightest chance that Jang’s story could one day be told to the world outside North Korea, I wanted to do everything in my power to make it a reality…
  120. My story begins in early 1993, began Jang. That was when I first met the woman who would become my wife, and the mother of our two beautiful children. I was only 20 at the time, but I had already been drafted into the Korean People’s Army three years earlier having joined immediately after my high school graduation. In the KPA, my first deployment was as a border guard along the DMZ, but I was later transferred to Huchang County, where I joined the protection force tasked with security for the construction of the Chunggang-up missile base. Huchang County is along the northern border with China, and the base itself was just a few miles from Linjiang, a town on the Chinese side. When our monthly leave day came around, it was common for my fellow soldiers and I to bribe the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel with our meagre cigarette ration to ferry us across the Yalu River to Linjiang, where we would marvel at the abundance of food in the markets and the automobiles in the streets. These outings would encourage us all to try to learn Chinese, although among my comrades I was the only one who was able to master the language.
  122. After some months of spending our leave days in Linjiang, fate would intervene in a most unexpected way. On board the fishing boat for the short journey back across the river to the North Korean, the boat struck a high swell and one of my fellow soldiers was pitched out into the treacherous waters. Among my colleagues I was the strongest swimmer, so I quickly shed my clothes and dived in after him, ignoring the captain’s protests that it was a suicidal mission. Indeed, it nearly proved to be the case, but somehow I managed to fight the strong current with my colleague on my back just far enough for us to collapse exhausted on the Chinese side of the riverbank. I tried to resuscitate the half-drowned soldier, but he had swallowed too much water and couldn’t be revived. I soon passed out from exhaustion and fear of the consequences that would await me back at my base. I later woke in the Linjiang Infirmary, where a Chinese doctor told me I was lucky to be alive, having contracted pneumonia from my exposure to the icy waters. I faced a long recovery, and an uncertain future on what would await me once I was healthy enough to travel home.
  124. As I recovered, I was tended to by a Chinese nurse named Chang Guiying. Guiying was an impossibly-beautiful young woman, and it didn’t take any effort on my part to fall deeply in love with her soon after she administered my first sponge bath. Surprisingly, the feeling was mutual, and Guiying incurred the wrath of her head nurse by spending a disproportionate amount of time in my ward and bringing me the choicest morsels from the hospital kitchen. Had I not met her, I would probably have returned to North Korea after being released from the hospital and sentenced to hard labour for abandoning my post. Instead, having met my dream girl, my decision was made easily: I would stay in Linjiang and start a new life with Guiying. Despite the protests of her parents, who warned her marrying a North Korean defector was a terrible decision, we were wed in August 1993, just a few months after fate brought us together.
  126. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish Guiying had listened to her parents, because their warnings proved prophetic. At the time, though, I was blissfully ignorant of the risks I was taking, and the consequences that would later be faced by my wife and our future family. I was convinced that my former masters in the Korean People’s Army had long-since written me off as dead, based on the witness reports of my plunge from the boat and the sub-zero conditions. While I was depressed at the thought I would never be able to see my family back in North Korea again, I took some comfort in the knowledge that they would be informed I had died a hero’s death trying to save a fellow solider. If I was to ever return, it would be in disgrace, and my family would only be rewarded with joining me at the labour camp. With the possibility of returning home firmly ruled out, my concerns shifted to finding employment in Linjiang, and I was luckily able to secure a position as a Korean teacher at a local high school with the help of Guiying’s cousin who worked there.
  128. I look back on this time as the happiest in my life: I was out of the endless, mind-numbingly boring life of a soldier and now happily married, with a loving wife and a job that I found interesting. Even my in-laws began to warm to me, after I proved myself as capable of providing a living for their daughter. Our lives would receive further good news soon after I started working at the high school; Guiying fell pregnant and the following year would give birth to our first child, a beautiful daughter who thankfully inherited her mother’s looks. We named her Yawen, and eighteen months later she was joined by a baby brother, who we christened Chengyan.
  130. Our lives could not have been any more perfect, and the past was only a distant memory that I consigned to the back of my mind. While I knew soon after we were married that it was tempting fate to remain living in Linjiang, so close to the border, I could not convince Guiying of the necessity to move to some other part of China. She had her whole family in Linjiang, and while they had slowly come to accept me despite their initial reservations, to move Guiying to another city would have destroyed any goodwill I had slowly earned over the years. To do so after our children were born would have been even more devastating to her relatives, as they were just as enamoured by Yawen and Chengyan as we were. In any event, I felt the risk of my past catching up with me receding as each year went on, and the busy schedule of being a new parent and a teacher left with me with little time to dwell on the past.
  132. The years flew by, and our children began to grow at an alarming rate. I was lucky enough to receive a promotion to a better school in 1997, which greatly helped with the household budget, particularly as Guiying never returned to work after our daughter was born. In 1998, to celebrate Yawen’s fourth birthday, we held a celebration at one of the best hotpot restaurants in Linjiang, which was attended by the majority of Guiying’s extended family. It was a joyous affair, and I remember thinking how lucky I was how my life had turned out. Little did I know at the time how soon things would change. As we were walking home after the party, an old van pulled up in front of us and a group of men spilled out. From their appearance, I knew almost immediately that they were North Korean agents, but I had no idea how they had tracked me down. For the first time in years, I uttered my native language, crying out “Spare my family!” The agents took no notice of my demand, and Guiying was seized by one man while our children were scooped up by another. I tried to tackle the men but was rewarded with a blow to the back of my head, which must have rendered me unconscious as when I awoke it was alone inside a dark cell.
  134. I began to shout and curse as loudly as I could in the darkness, but no matter what I said, I received no response. By my best guess I was in that cell for almost two days before a bowl of watery soup was pushed through a slot in the door, with half the liquid splashing onto the filthy floor. I was so consumed by thirst that I lapped at the spilled moisture as though I were a dog, although no pet would be punished by such a pitiful meal. For the next few days, I remained in the darkness of the cell with only a group of rats to keep me company, and I ended up losing my voice from constantly screaming for my family. There was never any reply, and my mind became filled with all sorts of nightmare scenarios as to what fate had befallen them. I had almost lost all hope when the door swung open, by my rough estimate a week after arriving in the cell. To my surprise, the prison guard who stood at the entrance to my room told me I would be brought to see my family, and I was marched through a maze of corridors before being brought into a large open space. The joy I was feeling soon faded, as I knew exactly what this place was. Hardly any effort had been made to wash the blood stains from where they had soaked into the concrete. There was one prisoner at the other end of the room, and the hood and drab prison garb didn’t disguise the fact that it was my wife.
  136. I fell to the ground and begged the guard but he just kicked my chest and demanded that I stand. When I wasn’t able to do that he summoned a pair of guards who lifted me from the ground and held me up, directly facing Guiying. An old man dressed in the uniform of the KPA entered the room and between my tears I was able to recognize he was decorated as a Major General. “Comrade Jang,” he said, “Did you think we had forgotten about you?” I pleaded with him to release my wife and children but he ignored this, and just shook his head. “You have a debt to repay your homeland, Jang. You must learn the consequences of disloyalty.” I continued to beg him to let my wife go, as she was innocent of any wrongdoing, but he shook his head again. “I’m sorry, but you have brought this upon her. Maybe you can save your children, Jang, but we cannot let your crimes go unpunished.” At that, he turned and left the room, and two men carrying rifles entered from another door. I almost managed to break free from the vice-like grip of the soldiers who held me in place as the executioners aimed their weapons at my dear Guiying and fired.
  138. Back in my cell, I was tortured by the images from that room, which I was unable to stop from playing back over and over again in my mind. The only thing that kept me from going completely crazy was the knowledge that my children may still be alive, and the comments of the Major General that I might be able to save them somehow. I knew I would do anything that I was asked if it could guarantee that Yawen and Chengyan would remain safe. After some weeks living in that miserable hellhole I was hooded by a guard and led out into the fresh air for the first time before being bundled into a waiting van. Several hours later we came to a halt and I was led by two guards up a flight of stairs and into an uncomfortable seat. The hood was removed and I found myself seated opposite the Major General who I had first met at my wife’s execution, and a younger man dressed in civilian clothing who I hadn’t seen before. He had no distinguishing features other than a sour expression that looked upon me with distaste.
  140. “I have been told that you now know the price of disloyalty, Jang.” he stated, devoid of any emotion. I nodded with enthusiasm. “That is good,” he continued, “Because we have a need for your services. You will be assigned to the State Security Department immediately and be tasked with training our operatives who are destined for service within China.” He removed an envelope from a folder in front of him and passed it across to me. “If you fulfil your duties effectively, then I can guarantee no harm will come to your two children.” I clawed open the envelope nervously and found several photos of Yawen and Chengyan, who looked remarkably unaffected by the events of the past few weeks. “When can I see them?” I whispered, and the man’s expression darkened. “That will depend on your performance, Jang. If it meets my expectations, I may be able to arrange a meeting in the future. If it doesn’t…” his voice trailed off ominously. Needless to say, I pledged I would perform any tasks that were asked of me, so long as my children would remain safe. “You will report into me from now on,” said the man. “My name is Comrade Heo.”
  142. Heo was an evil man, but I had little choice but to serve his bidding to the best of my abilities. True to his word, he did eventually grant me a visit with my children, but it was not until over a year had passed since I started working for him in the State Security Department. On the first occasion, I was accompanied by one of his trusted agents on a trip to Chonjin, some hours away from Pyongyang in the far north-east of the country. Here, my son Chengyan had been adopted by a foster family, and his new parents had given him the Korean name of Sung-Ho. When I had last seen my son, he was a happy, boisterous toddler a few months short of his third birthday. The boy that I met on this occasion was a sullen, withdrawn child, who shyly peeked out from between his adopted mother’s legs as I was introduced to him as a ‘friend of his parents’. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that my own son, my dear Chengyan, no longer recognized me. The only positive was that the family who were tasked with his care appeared to be looking after him well enough, and I could see no signs that he was being ill-treated. I resolved to keep working as hard as I could for Heo, and hoped that he would continue to honour his end of the bargain.
  144. Later that year, Heo met with me and told me the news I had been both desperately longing for and dreading simultaneously. He had finally decided the time had come for a meeting with Yawen. While one part of me was thrilled at the prospect of finally seeing my daughter again, I was equally fearful that she would have forgotten all about me just as Chengyan had. As it turned out, my worst fears were not realized, because Yawen had not forgotten me at all. Her situation was totally different to that of my son, which I assumed in part was due to her being older at the time of our abduction from Linjiang. Instead of being adopted out to a family, Yawen was living at an orphanage not far from Pyongyang. As Heo explained to me, Yawen had been assigned to two foster families, but proved so disruptive to both that her new parents had returned her. With a menacing grin, he noted that this was fairly common in his experience, and it took a lot of self-control to avoid punching him in the face. I managed to avoid it, though, as it would’ve surely signed both my own death sentence and that of my children. It did make me question, not for the first time, just how many abducted children were trapped in North Korea, with their parents forced to serve the regime.
  146. I was hooded on the journey to the orphanage, and it surprised me as Heo hadn’t required that level of security on my trip to Chonjin. However, as soon as I saw my daughter, I realized why he had gone to extra lengths to conceal her location. In contrast to Chengyan’s sullen and shy behaviour, Yawen was all over me the minute she was brought into the visiting room, and we both spent what felt like hours in a tearful embrace as I reassured her that things would be OK. Despite her tender age, she had a surprisingly mature understanding of the tragedies that had unfolded over the recent past. While I conceded the fact that Chengyan would probably never know that I was his father, I took great comfort from the fact that Yawen would always know the truth. As a pair of orderlies arrived to announce our visit was over, which felt like no time had passed at all, I embraced my daughter once more and told her I would be back soon. “Be strong, my dear Yawen,” I called after her, as she was removed from the room. One of the orderlies turned back with an unpleasant expression. “She’s not called that anymore,” she snarled. “She has a Korean name now.”
  148. Jang’s narrative came to an abrupt halt at this point, and he stared at me intently. “What was her new name?” I asked, but before I had finished my question I realized I already knew the answer. Gyeong turned around and told me. “Her new name,” he said, “was Sun-Young.”
  150. The remainder of Chu Jingyi’s stay in Pyongyang was filled with meetings at the offices of the DPRK Coal Mining Group, and it would come as no surprise to readers of this series that Chu failed to sign a contract, citing unfavourable conditions. However, before leaving the country, he made a promise to Jang Wong-Yon and Gyeong Ji-Hu that he would do everything he could to help with their plan to save Sun-Young from her captivity in the secret brothel. Chu returned to North Korea in February 2016, and the full details of the covert operation he was involved in are due to be published in a new three-part series, Five Miles from the DPRK Border: The Liberation of Sun-Young, beginning on April 22, 2016
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