Five Miles from the DPRK Border

Oct 31st, 2020
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  1. Five Miles from the DPRK Border: The Liberation of Sun-Young | East Asia Tribune
  2. Chu Jingyi is back with an explosive three-part series documenting his return to North Korea in February, 2016. At the end of his last visit, Chu made a solemn vow to help Jang Wong-Yon save his daughter, Sun-Young, who was facing a lifetime of involuntary servitude at a secret Pyongyang brothel. Sun-Young’s lover, Gyeong Ji-Hu, an executive at a State-owned coal producer, also pledged his support for the rescue attempt. Can Chu and his co-conspirators liberate Sun-Young from her imprisonment, or will their plot be uncovered by the North Korean regime?
  4. I arrived at the hotel on Dandong’s Tongchun Street at 9:00 PM and took a seat at the almost-empty bar. As instructed by Jang Wong-Yon, when the tired-looking barmaid glanced in my direction I placed an order for a bottle of Harbin Beer, which she dutifully opened and served for me without comment. I took a sip and remembered why I normally refuse to drink the brand. I didn’t have much choice, though, as ordering a Harbin Beer was a pre-arranged signal to the agent that I was here to meet that I hadn’t been followed to the bar. Jang and I had agreed that if I needed to abort my rendezvous with the contact, I was to order a glass of baijiu: a strong, grain-based Chinese liquor. It was an oversight on my behalf that I didn’t ask him to switch the meaning of each drink, as a shot of fiery baiju on this cold night would have been a much more palatable choice. It was too late to do anything about my choice of drink, so I sat in the bar, sipping on my beer for several minutes and hoping that Jang’s man hadn’t been compromised.
  6. I knew little about the agent who I was about to meet, other than he was North Korean and had been based in Dandong for almost ten years, since Jang’s days as a handler in the DPRK’s much-feared State Security Department. In that role, Jang had been responsible for training North Koreans before their deployment across the northern border into China. It was not a position that he had voluntarily applied for; many years earlier, Jang had defected to China and started a new life, but his whole world was turned upside-down after a group of DPRK agents abducted him and his family and brought them back to North Korea. With his wife executed before his eyes and his children now wards of the State, a vicious security chief known as Comrade Heo forced Jang to use his knowledge of China to help train agents before they were sent abroad. In return for his loyalty and service, Heo promised he would ensure that Jang’s children remained safe and unharmed. For many years, Heo stood by his guarantee, but as Jang’s knowledge of China became increasingly out-dated, there came a point where he realized he had served his usefulness.
  8. “When Heo told me I would be moving to a new department, to supervise foreign visitors in the DPRK, I immediately asked him if he would continue to protect my children.” I remembered the conversation that Jang and I had shared in the Pothonggang Hotel several weeks ago. “He told me the agreement would still stand, but that I would no longer be able to visit Sun-Young.” At that time, Jang’s daughter had just turned 18, which was the age at which she was required to leave the State-run orphanage outside of Pyongyang that she had called home for most of her life. Speaking of his conversation with Heo, Jang told me: “He said she would continue to be safe and protected, and we could exchange letters once per month, but her new location and living arrangements were to be a complete secret.” Having no opportunity to negotiate better terms, Jang had no choice but to accept Heo’s new offer, and hope that no harm would come to his daughter. As agreed, Sun-Young would send a letter to her father each month, but these missives contained little detail about where she was now living, causing Jang to grow suspicious. The following year, thanks to a chance meeting, Jang would discover that Heo had lied in a most cruel manner.
  10. “I was in the Pothonggang district with a group of Japanese visitors,” Jang told me, “When I caught a glimpse of Sun-Young on the other side of the street. As you can imagine, I was completely shocked at the sight, and fearful that it was some sort of a test of me that Heo had arranged for an evil purpose. Luckily, I was able to excuse myself from the tour by feigning illness, as there was another DPRK guide with the group. That allowed me to follow Sun-Young at a distance as she was accompanied by a guard back to a non-descript building. The man was armed, so I was careful not to be spotted and risk arrest, or worse.” By sheer coincidence, Jang had stumbled upon Sun-Young’s new home and place of business: a secret brothel run by the North Korean authorities, and catering to the most influential and powerful figures within the regime. After this discovery, Jang dedicated all his free time to learning as much as he could about the establishment, with the aim of finding a way to rescue his daughter from her captivity. Through careful enquiries, a slow process as Jang was determined not to warn Heo that he had found his daughter’s location, Jang eventually came into contact with Gyeong Ji-Hu, the man who had fallen in love with his daughter.
  12. “As a reward for hitting my sales targets at DPRK Coal, I was first invited to visit the brothel back in 2013,” revealed Gyeong, as he picked up the story where Jang had finished. “I had recently divorced at that time, and the director wanted to give me an incentive to work harder and lift me out of the depression I had fallen into. It would prove to be a life-changing experience, because on that first visit, I met Sun-Young.” At that time, Sun-Young was 19 years old, and had only been imprisoned at the brothel for several months. “She was fearful and shy, but despite the trauma she had been through she was still the most beautiful woman I had ever seen,” said Gyeong. “I didn’t sleep with her that night, as much as I wanted to, because my heart broke for her, being trapped in a place of such despair against her will. From her perspective, I was the first man she had encountered there who treated her with an ounce of dignity and respect, and she pleaded with me to come back again. The following month, after hitting my sales target again, I had a chance to go back, and that was the first time we made love.” Over the following years, Gyeong would return to the brothel as frequently as his sales performance permitted, and each visit with Sun-Young would make him only grow deeper in love with her. At the same time, he grew increasingly desperate at trying to find a way to rescue his lover from the vice-like grip of the regime. “When word filtered through to me that there was a State Security official who was trying to find out information about the brothel, I arranged a meeting with him,” said Gyeong. “And as you know, it turned out to be Jang.”
  14. At this point, Jang continued the story. “Despite the shock of learning my daughter was trapped in such a place, it was reassuring that she had a man like Gyeong visit her regularly and care for her as best he could. It also gave me a valuable ally with a mutual goal: rescuing Sun-Young from that despicable prison.” Jang mentioned how he had been meeting secretly with Gyeong for some months before my arrival in Pyongyang, plotting a mission to free his daughter from the brothel. “We agreed that the only way to guarantee Sun-Young’s safety was to find a way to get her across the border and far away from North Korea. Despite having agents that I had trained in the past who were working in China, there are none that I trusted enough for an operation as risky as this.” The pair continued to brainstorm ideas, and concluded that the best chance of success would be offered by the foreigners that Jang encountered in his role as a tour guide. “I knew that if we could find the right person, and introduce them to Sun-Young first, that they would be likely to help us.” I nodded as I digested this information, realizing their plan was a work of genius. Now that I had met Sun-Young, and spent a night in her charming company, it was impossible for me to turn down their request for help. “Gentlemen,” I said. “I am willing to do whatever I can to help free her.” Jang and Gyeong both sighed with relief. “We will be forever in your debt,” said Jang. “Now, we must spend the next few evenings before you leave Pyongyang preparing in detail, and even then, everything will have to go in our favour if we are to succeed…”
  16. Several weeks later, the first part of the plan Jang had outlined was about to be put in place. As I sat at the bar in Dandong nursing my Harbin Beer, a man wearing a heavy winter coat approached the counter and ordered a whisky on the rocks. Then, just as the barmaid was about to pour the liquor over the ice cubes, he changed his order and asked for the whisky to be served neat, earning a scowl from the barmaid. This must be him, I thought, as Jang had instructed me my contact would make the same order before changing it at the last moment. I downed the rest of the beer and walked past the man towards the exit, and as I brushed past his coat I slipped a scrap of paper into the pocket, which had the number 306 written on it. Ten minutes later, I was back in room 306 of the hotel waiting for the man to arrive. I opened the curtains and stared across the Yalu River at the dim lights visible from North Korea, wondering if I was completely crazy to be going back there the following day. My thoughts were interrupted by a series of knocks from outside my room. I cursed at the fact the hotel had neglected to include a peephole on their doors, but I opened it anyway to find the man from the bar waiting outside. Now that I had a clear view of him, I was struck by how similar his appearance was to my own, leading to believe he must have had some Chinese ancestors.
  18. “I don’t want to know your name,” said the man as he entered my room, closing the door behind him. “Ah,” he said, as he stared at my face. “Now I know why Jang asked for my help.” I nodded, not sure how much Jang had told him about the reason why I needed his identity papers. “You’d better not cause any trouble in North Korea, or I’ll be stuck in China forever.” I wanted to point out that most people would see being stuck in China as a much better outcome than the reverse, but I wisely held my tongue. From his inside pocket, the man retrieved a bundle of documents and passed them to me. “When you see Jang, tell him the debt has been paid. If anything, I think he’s the one who owes me now.” I nodded again, and without any further conversation the man turned around and left the room. I shuffled through the various items that were included in the bundle, and found a North Korean passport and State Security ID card in the name of Baek Sung-Yueng. I carefully scrutinized the photos of Baek and felt relatively confident I could pass for him under inspection, particularly as both documents had been issued several years ago. The bigger risk, of course, would be if anyone checking them knew Baek personally, in which case I would be soon joining Jang and Gyeong in an execution chamber somewhere in North Korea. Also included was a one-way train ticket from Dandong to Pyongyang, with a departure time of 9:35 AM the following day. As I drew the curtains in my room, I looked out again at the faint lights from North Korea before climbing into bed for a night of restless sleep.
  20. The next morning, I had a mediocre breakfast in the hotel dining room before checking out and hailing a taxi to Dandong Railway Station. My train had already arrived in the station, having started its journey in Beijing the previous evening, not long after I met my North Korean contact at the hotel bar. As the journey commenced, I observed the view over the Yalu River Bridge – or, the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, as it has been renamed – as we crossed over the border and entered North Korea. Here, the train halted at a lonely platform of Sinuiju Station and was boarded by North Korean officers to perform identity and security checks. I summoned all my courage, as any trace of nervousness as this point would place me under immediate suspicion. However, the officer charged with checking my paperwork barely glanced at me as soon as he saw the State Security ID card. He hurriedly passed my documents back, bowing briefly before continuing down the carriage. The first hurdle had been cleared, but I knew the remaining ones would be far higher.
  22. Once the officers had completed their inspections, the carriage’s doors were opened and I proceeded to the station’s waiting room. Here, I would be stuck for several hours before our domestic Pyongui Line train arrived for the journey to Pyongyang. Many of the other passengers left the station in search of food, or in the case of the tourists among us, photo opportunities. However, I wanted to avoid unnecessarily venturing out in public and interacting with North Koreans; after all nothing would be worse than being unmasked at this early stage of our operation. When the time did come to board the train to the capital, the compartment I found myself in had only a hard sleeper, an unwelcome change from the soft mattresses of the Chinese train, but I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep anyway over the remaining hours. Despite being less than 200 kilometres away, the journey from Sinuiju to Pyongyang was scheduled to take around five hours, and I passed that time with my thoughts focused on the plan for the following day.
  24. I checked my watch as the train’s whistle marked our approach into Pyongyang Station, finding that we had arrived slightly before the scheduled time of 7:30 PM. So far, my trip had been uneventful, but I knew from now on the risks would be exponentially higher. It was one thing to pose as a Chinese businessman, as I had on my last visit to the rogue nation, but to assume the identity of a State Security official was something else entirely. I took comfort in the fact that both Jang and Gyeong had planned every element of our operation to the finest detail, but even the most careful preparations could be exposed by an unforseen event. I recalled Jang’s earlier instructions that I was to take a seat in the waiting room on the station’s first floor, and as I approached the area I was relieved to find him already there. “Comrade Baek, it is good to see you again,” he said, as he stepped forward to shake my hand for the benefit of anybody watching. In a more quiet voice, he added: “Everything has gone OK so far, I trust?” I nodded.
  26. I followed Jang as he strolled through the station and out into the freezing Pyongyang night. Once outside, we turned north onto Sosong Street and made the short walk across to Yonggwang Station, part of the Pyongyang Metro system. As we walked, Jang explained we would be taking the Metro to Jonu Station, which was not far from a safe house he had arranged for the operation. “Back when I was in charge of field agents, I was responsible for maintaining a number of apartments in Pyongyang that they could use when they returned from China for training,” he explained. “I removed all details of this particular property from the files before Heo ousted me from the department, thinking it might come in handy for some future use.”
  28. It had been a long time since I last rode on the Pyongyang Metro, and I was not surprised to see it had changed little in the intervening years. Having been built back in the early 70s, walking through the stations felt like going back in a time machine to the height of Kim Il-sung’s reign. The subway cars themselves were slightly more modern; In the late 90s, North Korea purchased old rolling stock from the Berlin Metro system to replace their aging Chinese cars, and indeed the carriage Jang and I were standing at had an assortment of German graffiti carved into window frames. At this time of night the Metro was nearly empty, with just a few tired-looking passengers dressed in office clothes heading back to their homes. Jang and I passed the trip in silence, not wanting to take the risk of our conversation being overheard.
  30. The trip to Jonu Station was brief and uneventful, although the escalator to the ground level was out of service and it took us several minutes of climbing to reach the surface. “We are actually quite close to the Chinese embassy from here,” said Jang, pointing to a compound to the south west. We walked in the opposite direction, crossing a small bridge and turning left onto a narrow lane. There were a pair of tall apartment towers on the corner that looked like they had been built recently, but Jang walked past those and headed for a much older-looking building at the end of the street. “I’m afraid it’s not the most comfortable accommodation,” he said, as we walked into the dark foyer. The solitary lift showed no sign of having been used in recent years, but Jang told me the apartment was only on the second floor, which I was grateful to learn after our earlier climb at the metro station. Jang knocked several times on the door, and shortly after it swung open to reveal a familiar figure.
  32. “Chu, you made it!” Gyeong cried, a little too loudly, and Jang quickly bundled me through the door and into the apartment. Sitting on the dining table was a large bottle of soju, with barely a drop of liquid left at the bottom. Jang grabbed it, and despite Gyeong’s protests, quickly tipped the remaining contents down the drain. “Have you lost your mind!?” he demanded, and Gyeong hung his head in disgrace. “Tomorrow morning we could all be dead thanks to your recklessness.” Jang was furious, and rightly so, but at the same time I felt that Gyeong deserved some leniency. The events of tomorrow could easily end with all three of us captured, or worse, so if Gyeong wanted to have one last night of drunken enjoyment I felt he deserved it. “It was just one bottle,” he apologized, with his head still hung low. Jang sighed and set about boiling a kettle of water, while Gyeong and I took a seat at the table. As we sipped tea, Gyeong soon sobered up and our conversation focused on the plan for the following day.
  34. “As Gyeong learned, my daughter and the other girls at the brothel are all permitted one trip per month to the outside world, assuming they have fulfilled their duties and not caused any trouble.” Jang took a sip of tea before continuing. “On all occasions, they are accompanied by Mun, and they are confined to only the immediate area around the Pothonggang neighborhood.” My mind wandered back to when I had visited the brothel with Gyeong, and the encounter with the tall, ugly agent who stood guard outside. Gyeong appeared to have recovered from his soju indulgence, as he picked up the conversation. “When I first explained to Sun-Young that I was working with her father on a plan to rescue her, she was against it. She was nervous and demanded that we not go ahead with it, because she was too scared Jang or I could be harmed. But eventually, I convinced her that it was the only way we could truly be together, and the alternative was for her to remain trapped in that hellhole for the rest of her life.” Gyeong took a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing. “Tomorrow is her assigned excursion day, and I met with her last week to go over the plan once more.”
  36. Jang now began to outline the exact details for tomorrow’s operation. “Mun watches Sun-Young like a hawk, but there is one occasion where he always lets his guard down. Like most of the girls, Sun-Young visits the Rakwon Department Store on each outing, and while she browses the beauty section, Mun takes the opportunity to quickly visit the men’s restroom, which is located close by.” Gyeong and I nodded. “It is crucial for our plan to succeed that Mun uses that restroom again tomorrow.” Jang continued to explain exactly what each of us was required to do. Gyeong and I were to be waiting inside the bathroom by 11:00 AM, which was around the time Sun-Young planned to arrive at the department store. Jang, meanwhile, would pose as a customer and patrol the store, ready to alert us if there were any unexpected issues. Once Mun entered the restroom, Gyeong and I were to quickly overpower him, strip his uniform and tie him up before locking him inside a small cleaner’s room. Jang had inspected this room during the early stages of forming the plan, and found it appeared to no longer be in use. “If nobody ever finds him in there, that doesn’t concern me in the least,” he told us. As Gyeong was the closest physical match for Mun, he would wear his uniform and leave the restroom first, escorting Sun-Young from the store and to the safe house. Assuming we were successful to this point, I would then play the lead role in the second, more dangerous part of the plan: smuggling Sun-Young out of the country. “We will discuss that in further detail tomorrow night once my daughter is with us,” said Jang.
  38. I found it difficult to sleep with Gyeong’s constant snoring punctuating the otherwise-silent room, so I got up from my makeshift bed on the floor after several hours of lying awake and padded over to the balcony. The night outside was cold and dark, and I was about to walk back into the apartment when Jang slid the balcony door open. “I couldn’t sleep either,” he admitted, which I did not find surprising. We stood in silence for a few moments, contemplating the enormity of what would unfold in just a few hours. “Thank you, Chu,” he said, turning to me in the darkness. “You have much less to gain from this than Gyeong and I, and we have asked so much from you.” He placed an arm over my shoulder and I could sense he was overcome with emotion. “Promise me, if you make it back to China, even if it’s without my daughter, that you will tell the world her story.” I swore that I would do just that, and as Jang embraced me I felt the dampness of his tears on my shoulder.
  40. When I woke later that morning, I found Gyeong in the kitchen preparing a traditional Korean breakfast. “I wanted to make amends for my indulgence last night,” he explained, and with the spread on offer I felt he had gone above and beyond that goal. I was about to point out that it was good to be enjoying such a fine meal as it could well be our last, but I wisely opted to remain silent. Jang was delighted by the meal, and was in much higher spirits than when we had met on the balcony a few hours earlier. “Today is the day my daughter will be free at last,” he declared as he tucked into the doenjiang jigae. I was only able to stomach a few bites of the rich stew, as I felt my stomach tie itself in knots with nervousness at the task ahead of us. “Eat up Chu,” said Gyeong, pointing at my bowl. “You’ll need plenty of energy today.” When I declined, he shrugged and slid the bowl over to his side of the table, proceeding to devour it. I was envious at the apparent confidence both Jang and Gyeong shared.
  42. It was a cold morning as we made the short walk to Jonsung Station, which was located close to the Chinese embassy that Jang had pointed out to me. In contrast to the half-empty carriages of the previous night, the subway was packed with the morning rush and we were surrounded by office workers on our eastward journey along the Hyoksin Line to Hwanggumbol Station. According to Jang, this was the closest subway stop to our destination, but a walk of several hundred metres and a climb over the Sinso Bridge was required before we arrived at the department store. As we crossed the bridge, despite the hazy conditions I could make out the outline of the Pothonggang Hotel towards the east. We continued along Sosong Street before turning left onto Changgwang Street. “The store is just ahead,” said Jang, and I observed a compact, three level building ahead covered with reflective glass. In any Western country, the façade of the Rakwon Department Store would have been unremarkable, but amongst the drab concrete of the surrounding office buildings it stuck out like a sore thumb. Jang had already explained that the Rakwon was one of the most upmarket malls in the capital, and frequented predominantly by Pyongyang’s elite.
  44. Here, we split up; Jang proceeded around to a side entrance that led directly to a restaurant on the third floor. Gyeong and I both entered through the main department store entrance, but he took the escalator to the second floor, while I entered the ground floor supermarket and browsed around, noting with surprise the amount of imported products that were stocked on the shelves and the general lack of customers. I checked my watch & saw it was 10:40 AM, which left me with ten minutes to casually make my way up to the second-floor bathroom where Gyeong was already in position. As I passed through the liquor section of the supermarket I paused in disbelief when I spotted a shelf full of American whiskey, and it struck me as ironic given the DPRK’s constant anti-US rhetoric that they would stock their enemy’s merchandise. While the journalist in me wanted to spend more time at the supermarket to see what other unusual products were on offer, another glance at my watch prompted me to keep moving.
  46. Riding the escalator to the second floor of the department store, I felt concerned about how empty the store was; while I had been expecting it to be quiet based on Jang’s observations from prior visits, I had been hoping for a bit more of a crowd to blend in with as we carried out our plan. The only positive was that there were no tour groups present, as their guides would have likely recognized Jang. Upon arriving at the top of the escalator, I found myself in the men’s clothing section, and saw the beauty department on the back wall beyond the displays of women’s fashion, with a short corridor leading to the restrooms. Luckily, this floor had a few more shoppers, mainly elegantly-dressed older ladies, who were occupying the attention of the staff members as they browsed through the racks of dresses and coats. I walked to the back of the store without being interrupted and swung open the door to the men’s room.
  48. Standing before me, with a gun pressed firmly to her temple, was Sun-Young.
  50. The unmissable second instalment of Chu Jingyi’s Five Miles from the DPRK Border series is available here.
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  54. Five Miles from the DPRK Border Part II: The Liberation of Sun-Young | East Asia Tribune
  55. The second instalment of Five Miles from the DPRK Border continues with Chu Jingyi coming face to face with a shocking sight. As he enters the bathroom of a Pyongyang department store, he finds Comrade Mun, a DPRK agent, holding a gun to the head of Sun-Young, the young woman he has returned to North Korea to help save. If you’ve just joined the story here, we suggest starting with Chu Jingyi’s first article in the series: Five Nights in Pyongyang. We advise readers that the following article contains extremely NSFW themes.
  57. “Well this is interesting,” said Comrade Mun, who sneered at me over Sun-Young’s left shoulder as he pressed his pistol further against her head. “If I’m not mistaken, your name is Chu?” I nodded slowly, deciding that nothing would be gained in this situation by lying. Mun was standing in the centre of the restroom, holding Sun-Young tightly in his grasp. To their right was Gyeong Ji-Hu, who was pressed up against the basins with his hands on his head and an expression of defeat written over his face. “I want you to close that door and join your friend over there,” he said, gesturing in the direction of Gyeong. “Do it now.” I stepped into the bathroom and moved silently over to Gyeong, copying his pose by placing my hands on my head. Mun swivelled Sun-Young around so that they were both facing us, with his gun remaining tightly pressed against her. I saw now that she had a defiant look on her face, and I prayed that she would not try anything brave and risk being shot. Mun turned his attention from me back to Gyeong, who was trembling nervously. “Comrade Gyeong,” he said slowly. “How do you explain this man’s presence? Why is he still in Pyongyang?” No response was forthcoming from Gyeong, who I feared might be close to having a heart attack from the stress of the situation.
  59. With Gyeong remaining silent, Mun turned his attention back to me. I realized that Sun-Young and Mun must have arrived at the Rakwon Department Store ahead of schedule, ruining our plans to surprise Mun when he paid a visit to the restroom. “To see Gyeong here is enough of a coincidence, but both of you? You’re up to something, and you’re going to tell me what it is.” Before Mun had a chance to interrogate us any further, he was interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door creaking open. Several things then happened simultaneously. Mun, surprised, spun around in the direction of the door and momentarily released his tight hold on Sun-Young. Making the most of the opportunity, she slipped out of his grasp and pushed backwards, causing him to lose balance. As Mun fell, a deafeningly-loud blast of gunfire shattered the silence of the bathroom. Gyeong launched forward, seizing Mun in a tackle and crashing him into a stall, causing his weapon to fall to the ground. I ran forward to retrieve the pistol and noticed that Jang Wong-Yon was standing at the doorway, shielding his daughter from the ongoing chaos.
  61. Turning my attention back to Mun & Gyeong, I aimed the gun at the pair but found Gyeong had gained the upper hand, with his knee planted in Mun’s back and his hands firmly enclosed around his throat. Mun was struggling hopelessly, but Gyeong had the strength advantage and applied more pressure, choking off Mun’s supply of oxygen. I didn’t know what to do, other than stand there with the pistol trained in Mun’s direction and wait for the inevitable to happen. After what felt like an eternity, Gyeong slowly got to his feet, leaving Mun motionless on the floor. I lowered the gun and tucked it into my coat pocket when it became clear it was no longer necessary. Instead, my focus turned to Gyeong, and the red bloom that was spreading across his chest. Sun-Young had seen it too, as she ran across to Gyeong in tears, forcing him to sit down and open his shirt. Jang and I looked on helplessly as Sun-Young wailed and Gyeong tried to console her. “You must go,” he choked out with difficulty. “There’s nothing you can do for me, but if you go now, you might still have a chance.” Judging by the amount of blood rushing from the wound there was little hope he could survive without immediate medical attention – something we would not be able to provide him with if Sun-Young was to have any chance of escaping. “I love you, Sun Young,” he said, which only prompted her to hold him tighter and weep louder.
  63. Jang and I eventually pried Sun-Young away from her lover as he lay dying in a pool of his own blood. It was a cruel but necessary decision if we were to have any hope of escaping the DPRK authorities. Jang and I helped Sun-Young out of the bathroom, and we were relieved to not immediately find a security guard outside with a gun trained in our direction. The shop floor was now empty, and the customers and staff who I’d seen earlier had disappeared. As we rushed through the women’s clothing section, Jang stopped and grabbed a heavy coat from a rack. “Wear this, Yawen,” he insisted, using his daughter’s Chinese name. It was a good idea, as it hid most of her clothing that was soaked with Gyeong’s blood. “You can put your hands in the pockets,” he added, after realizing they were also stained red.
  65. We were halfway down the escalator when a pair of uniformed men rushed up the opposite side leading towards the second floor. The officers barely glanced at us as they stormed past. We reached the ground floor and sprinted for the exit, finding a large crowd of confused staff and shoppers milling around outside the Changgwang Street entrance. They looked at us expectantly as we emerged, but Jang ignored them and strode briskly in the direction of Sosong Street. “I need the gun,” he demanded, and I gladly pulled it from my coat and passed it to him. “We can’t take the Metro back,” he explained, before stepping out onto the road directly in front of an oncoming sedan. The driver angrily honked his horn, but Jang aimed the pistol in his direction and the noise ceased as the car came to an abrupt halt. Jang ran across to the driver’s side and opened the door. “State business, we need this vehicle!” he demanded, and the hapless driver barely registered a protest before tumbling out to be replaced with Jang behind the wheel. I swung open the passenger door and helped Sun-Young in, and I was barely inside the car myself before Jang squealed away from the kerb.
  67. “Keep low and hold on,” he said. Sun-Young and I squeezed onto the floor of the passenger compartment as the vehicle swerved erratically. “Are you OK?” I asked Sun-Young, which I soon realized was a stupid question. How could she possibly be OK? We had just abandoned the man she loved, who had given his life to rescue her, and our own chances of survival were not looking promising either. There was nothing remotely ‘OK’ about the situation at all. But instead of despair, Sun-Young surprised me as a look of determination spread over her face, similar to the expression when I’d seen her in Mun’s grasp earlier that morning. “Things will never be OK again,” she said. “They stole Ji-Hu from me. They stole my family from me. But I will make them pay.” I was shocked at the anger that burned behind her beautiful eyes. “I will make them pay for everything that they have done, and you will help me, Jingyi.” I sat there in silence, amazed at her sudden transformation from grief to fury.
  69. Jang intervened at this point, as he manoeuvred through the traffic. “I don’t want to hear any more talk of revenge,” he said, briefly turning back to look at his daughter, who I realized he hadn’t seen in many years since she was moved from the orphanage to the brothel. “I’ve only just got you back, and I don’t want to lose you again. We have to focus on getting you safely across the border before you can even think about that.” His harsh tone softened as he looked back again. “My dear Yawen, you look so much like your mother…” Jang was cut off by the boom of a truck horn, and he swerved back into his lane. “I better concentrate on driving,” he said, sheepishly, but I saw that his comment made Sun-Young’s hate-filled expression soften momentarily.
  71. We continued to race through Pyongyang in the direction of the safe house. There were a few nervous moments as we heard sirens approach, but they were revealed as a pair of ambulances driving in the opposite direction, no doubt bound for the scene we had just fled. Jang slowed as he entered the side street where the safe house was located. “I’m going to find a place to hide the car and walk back,” he told us, passing me the key to the apartment. “Please be careful.” To Sun-Young, he reached back and embraced her, before promising he would be back as soon as possible. We got out of the car and watched Jang drive to the end of the street. “We’d better go inside,” I said to her, and we took the stairs up to the second floor, relieved not to encounter any other residents. “I’m going to take a shower,” Sun-Young declared, as she stared down at her blood-soaked clothing before hurriedly entering the bathroom.
  73. I sank down into the couch and tried to relax, which proved incredibly difficult. My mind was filled with images of the terrible events that had filled our morning. As I glanced to the table, I saw our dishes remained uncleared from the breakfast that Gyeong had served us earlier that day, and I felt a great sense of loss hit me. I knew I would never see Gyeong again. That he would die in the cruellest circumstances, right before his lover was freed from her forced captivity, was a terrible injustice. In overpowering Mun, he had saved not only Sun-Young’s life, but also Jang’s and my own. He had truly died a hero’s death, and I hoped that I would have the opportunity to share his story with the world. At the moment, the chances of that weren’t looking overly good.
  75. Sun-Young spent so long in the bathroom that Jang arrived back at the apartment first, having left the car in a side street not far from the safe house. “It’s a risk,” he admitted, “But we won’t be here for much longer.” I nodded, although I would’ve felt more comfortable if Jang had driven the car into the Potong River where it might go unnoticed for decades. The next part of our plan was already risky enough without leaving the evidence of our getaway car in a street nearby. Sun-Young interrupted my thoughts as she emerged from the bathroom dressed in a waitress uniform, and she was quickly embraced by her father. The pair took a seat on the couch and I decided it would be best to give them some privacy, so I walked into the bedroom and lay down on the hard mattress, my thoughts firmly focused on the challenges ahead.
  77. The plan to smuggle Sun-Young out of North Korea hinged on her assuming the identity of a restaurant worker, hence the uniform that she was now clad in. Surprisingly, North Korea operates a number of restaurants in foreign nations, as far away as Cambodia and Thailand, but primarily dotted along the border with China. Dandong, where I had crossed into North Korea just a day earlier, was home to several eateries run by the DPRK. Jang, through his network of contacts deep within the State Security Department, had been able to procure identity papers for a female restaurant worker. Using a photo taken by Gyeong during one of his many visits to the brothel, Jang had even been able to ensure the headshot in Sun-Young’s fake documents would pass inspection. Her incredible beauty would only add weight to her story, as it was well known that North Korea selected only the most attractive women to serve as waitresses abroad. If asked what she was doing back in North Korea, Sun-Young’s cover story was that she had been granted leave to return to Pyongyang for a week to visit her sick mother, which was ironic given that her real mother, Chang Guiying, had been executed at the hands of the DPRK regime decades ago. Of course, with Sun-Young having spent so little of her life in the outside world, the risks involved in making such an arduous trip alone were high – and that was why Jang and Gyeong had felt it was essential for her to be accompanied across the border.
  79. Both men had known that the minute Sun-Young was reported missing from the brothel, the suspicions of the State Security department would come down heavily on both of them. Particularly Gyeong, as he was well known to be Sun-Young’s most loyal customer, but Jang knew that it wouldn’t take long for news to filter through to Comrade Heo as well. Our original plan had been for both men to continue their duties normally as though nothing had happened, as they would be under close surveillance by the authorities to see if they had been involved. Once enough time had passed, the pair had planned to use forged documents prepared by Jang to also make the border crossing into China, where they could be reunited with Sun-Young and start a new life, far away from the reach of the DPRK. Of course, this part of the plan had been completely ruined by the events of the morning. Gyeong was dead, and each hour that passed increased the chances that Jang would meet a similar fate. I decided to do everything I could to convince Jang to accompany us on our journey to the border the following day, as to remain in Pyongyang would be a guaranteed death sentence.
  81. As I approached the pair, I saw that Jang was showing Sun-Young a series of photos which he had retrieved from his wallet. “Chengyan,” she whispered, and I was confused for a moment before recalling where I had heard that name before. It was that of Jang’s only son – and Sun-Young’s younger brother – who had been sent to live with a foster family in the north east of the country many years ago. Having been such a young age when his family was abducted from China and brought to North Korea, Chengyan – or Sung-Ho, as his foster family had renamed him – had not recognized his father when Jang had been permitted to visit him. Sun-Young showed me the photos as I sat down on the couch, and they revealed a young man that closely resembled Jang’s appearance. “I received these several years ago,” said Jang, with a wistful expression. “He would have been 16 at the time. Since I moved out of the State Department, Heo must have ordered his foster family to stop communicating with me.”
  83. We were silent for a moment before I took the opportunity to coax Jang into coming with us for the journey to Dandong. However, my best efforts, combined with Sun-Young’s pleas, proved fruitless. We argued for some time before Jang stood resolutely, and said: “Enough. There is nothing I want more than to accompany you both to China. But we all know that is impossible. By tomorrow morning, Heo will have figured out our entire plan, and he’ll be waiting on the platform at Pyongyang Station to arrest us all.” Jang paused and looked down at his daughter before continuing. “Yawen, if there was a way I could go with you, trust me, I would.” Sun-Young began to wail as she had done earlier that morning when she held the mortally-wounded Gyeong in her arms. Before Jang could stop her, she sprang up from the couch and sprinted over to the bedroom, slamming the door. Jang sighed deeply and followed her into the room. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I sat awkwardly on the couch for some time. It surprised me greatly when I later heard the sound of Jang singing, especially as it was a song I had not heard since I was a young boy. “The moon is bright, the wind is quiet, the tree leaves hang over the window. My little baby, go to sleep quickly, sleep, dreaming sweet dreams.”
  85. Jang later emerged from the room alone and silently closed the door. “Her mother used to sing that to her, when she had trouble sleeping,” he explained, when he saw my puzzled expression. “I couldn’t think of any other way to comfort her.” We stood there in silence, neither of us knowing exactly what to say. Eventually, Jang reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to go to Heo’s office now,” he said, with a determined look in his eye, and he patted the bulge inside his coat made by Mun’s pistol. “If I have a chance, I’ll make him pay for what he has done to my family.” I knew it would be futile to try and make him to change his mind, so I nodded and wished him good luck. “Please take care of my daughter,” he said, and I promised him that I would. There was nothing else for us to say, and he released his grasp on my shoulder before walking out of the apartment.
  87. I was hit by a wave of exhaustion after Jang left, and I found myself collapsing onto the couch and struggling not to fall asleep. The events of the past two days had taken their toll on me at last, and while I told myself I had to stay awake to protect Sun-Young from any intruders, I was unable to fight my weariness longer. I drifted into a deep sleep that must have lasted for hours, but I was abruptly woken after I heard Sun-Young cry out from the bedroom. My mind raced as I tumbled from the couch and ran through the darkened apartment in her direction. Had Heo’s agents already found our safe house? As I pushed open the door to the bedroom, I was relieved to find no signs of intruders inside. Instead, I could only see Sun-Young alone in bed, bathed in moonlight, with her eyes wide open and a terrified expression covering her face. I rushed over to her and she was momentarily shocked at my presence before realizing who I was. “It was so horrible,” she sobbed, and I held her tightly until her tears stopped running down my shoulder.
  89. I started to relax my hold, but I was shocked by the strength in her delicate body as she tightened her arms around my neck, pulling me towards her. “Don’t leave me,” she whispered, but she didn’t give me a chance to reply before I felt her lips engulf my own. For a moment I held back, fearful that in her grief Sun-Young had mistaken me for her lover. But she opened her beautiful eyes again and gave me a look that melted away all my remaining self-control. This time I didn’t hold back as her lips returned to find mine in the darkness. I was surprised once more by her strength as she twisted beneath me, pushing me onto my back and forcing herself on top of me, and I realized for the first time she was naked beneath the bed sheets. If I’d had any desire to free myself from that position – which I’ll admit, I did not – I’m not entirely sure I could have, such was the way she’d arranged herself above me. I could already feel the heat radiating from where our bodies met, and as she reached down to guide me into her she looked directly into my eyes, not with the expression of desire that I’d been expecting but with one of cruel, sadistic intent. She cried out loudly as I entered her, and I tried to pull back, but she forced herself down so that I was totally enveloped within her. Here she paused, with the heat of her body engulfing me in a furnace of pleasure, before she rose up again without warning, so that I almost slipped from inside her. Once again she looked down at me, and the savage mask I’d seen moments before had given way to a much softer, more vulnerable expression. “Don’t leave me,” she said again, and I felt a single tear fall from her face and splash against my chest before she plunged back down again, and again.
  91. Hours later, I woke to find Sun-Young buried in my arms, now illuminated by the first rays of dawn. I glanced across at the clock on the wall and found it was approaching 7:00 AM, so I roused her from her sleep with some trepidation given the events of the previous night. However, she woke without comment and slipped into her clothes before padding across to the bathroom. I busied myself with dressing and went to reheat the leftovers of the breakfast that Gyeong had served up the previous day. Sun-Young soon joined me and we devoured the meal in silence. Our train bound for Dandong was due to depart from Pyongyang Station at 10:10 AM, and I wanted to make sure we were both safely on board well before that time. I decided to break the silence by running through the plan for our journey to the train station, and Sun-Young listened attentively without interrupting me. The only real option for us to reach Pyongyang Station would be to retrace the same route that Jang and I had used via the Metro when he’d brought me to the safe house two days earlier. As I explained to Sun-Young, the authorities would be on high alert for a group of fugitives, so we had to take care to not appear as though we were travelling together for the duration of our trip.
  93. As agreed, I entered the Jonu Metro Station first, taking the stairs for the long walk down to the platform as the escalators were still out of order. Sun-Young followed some distance behind me, safely separated by a group of morning commuters. I was pleased to not see any visible signs of an increase in security, although how many agents of the State Security Department were among the crowd dressed in civilian clothes was impossible to determine. After a wait of several minutes, the southbound service towards Puhung arrived at the station, and Sun-Young and I entered adjacent carriages. I would have loved to keep her close to me until we were safely across the border and into China, but the stakes were too high to take any more risks now. It was a tense journey as we continued along the Chollima Line towards Yonggwang Station, but thankfully it was uneventful, save for being pressed up against a crush of office workers in the carriage as the train became increasingly crowded. Upon arriving at Yonggwang, I had a moment of fear after losing sight of Sun-Young amidst the crowd of passengers, but she soon emerged from behind a group of businessmen, allowing my heart to start beating once more.
  95. I again took the lead as we walked from the exit of Yonggwang Station towards Pyongyang Train Station, not turning back to check if Sun-Young was following me. Getting onto the train bound for Dandong would be far more difficult than our journey on the Pyongyang Metro, but I was grateful that Jang’s careful preparation meant that we already both had our tickets, saving the added risk and scrutiny of purchasing them now. Indeed, as I strolled into the station and passed the ticket office, I saw a number of uniformed officers standing at the front of the line and checking the documents of passengers. You might have just saved our lives, Jang, I thought, and I wished that I could have done more to convince him to come with us rather than face certain death at the hands of Heo.
  97. As I approached the platform, I was again relieved to find a lack of any obvious security preventing access to the train. Surely it won’t be this easy, I thought. But despite my paranoia, everything went as smoothly as I could have hoped. I boarded the train and took my seat by the window, grateful to already find a number of passengers seated throughout the cabin. Sun-Young soon entered from the other side of the carriage and took an aisle seat some distance away next to an older lady, who quickly engaged her in conversation. I was beginning to relax as the time of our departure approached when a uniformed man entered the carriage and stared down at me. “May I please see your ticket, sir,” he said, and I had to control my hand from shaking as I plucked it from my inside pocket. The conductor glanced at it briefly before stamping it. “Have a pleasant journey,” he said, as he returned my ticket stub.
  99. We were a few miles out of Pyongyang before it finally dawned on me that our plan – our crazy, risky plan – might actually work. All that stood in our way now was the final inspection at Sinuiju before we were permitted to transfer onto the Chinese train for the short journey across the bridge into Dandong, and freedom. I settled back into my hard seat, trying to make myself as comfortable as possible for the five-hour journey ahead. Occasionally I glanced down the carriage to the end where Sun-Young was seated, and found that she was still trapped in a conversation with the old lady next to her. Somehow I didn’t think the pair of them would have much common ground to talk about, but Sun-Young seemed to be listening intently to her elderly companion as the North Korean countryside continued rolling past us. As we covered the final miles towards Sinuiju, I felt myself tense up and my heart start beating faster. This is it.
  101. The train driver made an announcement as we pulled into the station to ask all passengers to remain in their seats. I heard the doors at the end of the carriage where Sun-Young was seated slide open, and a pair of North Korean officers stepped forward, scanning the cabin alertly before asking the first passengers to produce their documents. I was glad that Sun-Young had the old lady seated beside her for some moral support, and I prayed that everything would go OK. One of the officers asked the old lady for her documents first, and he handed them back soon after without comment. He then turned his attention to Sun-Young, and she dutifully reached into her coat to produce the papers that her father had obtained. He seemed to inspect these more closely, but also passed them back without asking any questions. I felt a wave of relief wash over me that Jang’s forgery had not raised any suspicions. The pair of officers continued along the carriage in my direction, checking the documents of all the passengers without finding anything amiss.
  103. “Papers, please,” said the officer as he approached my seat. I passed them across with what I hoped was an air of nonchalance. The officer’s bored expression flickered suddenly as he gazed down at them. “Comrade Baek,” he said, peering up from the ID card of the North Korean agent I was impersonating as his lips curled into a sardonic grin. Time seemed to freeze as he stared into my eyes. “You don’t seem to remember me?”
  105. We regret to inform our readers that the third and final instalment of Chu Jingyi’s Five Miles from the DPRK Border has been delayed. Our editorial deadline for the article to be submitted has passed, and despite our repeated calls and emails we have received no reply from Mr Chu. Given the subject matter of his most recent investigation, we hold grave fears for his safety.
  107. May 6, 2016 Update: A press conference was held by East Asia Tribune to confirm that contact has been made with Chu Jingyi. For further details, please refer to this press release.
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  111. Press Release: Missing Journalist Makes Contact With East Asia Tribune | East Asia Tribune
  112. Shanghai, China – May 6, 2016: Alec Ustinov, editor of the East Asia Tribune (EAT), held a brief press conference this afternoon to share the latest developments regarding missing EAT journalist, Chu Jingyi. Chu, the author of a report concerning North Korean atrocities, had failed to submit the latest piece in the series by the agreed time earlier this week, causing his colleagues to grow concerned for his welfare.
  114. “Given the subject matter of his investigation,” said Mr Ustinov, “we held grave fears for the safety of Mr Chu and his associates. When the deadline passed without any communication, we made several attempts to contact him via phone & email without receiving any response.” However, Mr Ustinov went on to share some positive news with the assembled press representatives. “I can confirm that I received a call from Mr Chu at around 14:00 this afternoon, and he reported that he is safe and unharmed at an undisclosed location.” Mr Ustinov then opened the floor for questions from journalists attending the press conference, but warned that he would be unable to divulge any information that may compromise the security of Chu and his associates. The following is a summary of the facts shared by Mr Ustinov at this afternoon’s press conference:
  116. At the end of Chu’s most recently-published piece in the series, he had been confronted by a DPRK immigration officer on board a train at Sinuiju, close to the border of North Korea and China. The officer discovered that Chu was travelling under false pretences and he was taken into custody by agents of the State Security Department. It was not disclosed if Chu’s female associate, Sun-Young (alternatively known by her Chinese name, Yawen), was also detained.
  117. Following his arrest, which took place in early February, 2016, Chu was interred at a prison camp at an unspecified location within North Korea. Mr Ustinov reported that Chu declined to elaborate on his treatment at the camp. After nearly one month of imprisonment, Chu was able to escape from the prison with the aid of two associates, who were not named. The trio then crossed the border from North Korea into a separate country, also undisclosed.
  118. During their escape, one member of the trio was seriously injured, and required urgent medical attention that prevented them from travelling further. Despite the risks involved in remaining close to the North Korean border, Chu and his other associate decided to remain at this location while their injured group member recovered. It was here that Chu began to write the early instalments of the series, with the first article published by EAT on March 31, 2016.
  119. The injured group member slowly recovered, and by the end of April they were deemed fit enough to travel. However, on May 2, the day before Chu and his associates had arranged to leave the location, an attack was carried out on the group. Chu was able to escape but did not reveal if his two associates were both able to join him.
  120. Mr Ustinov confirmed that Chu is now at a distant location from North Korea and is receiving medical attention. “I told him to take as much time as he needs to fully recover: both physically, from the wounds he sustained in the attack, and from the emotional trauma of what he has been through.” With this in mind, Mr Ustinov apologized to the assembled journalists that Chu’s next article may be delayed for some time. “There are still moving parts in this affair which limit what we are able to disclose. Please be assured that at the right time, the full story uncovered by Chu Jingyi will be published.”
  122. Before concluding the press conference, Mr Ustinov noted he had been unprepared for the level of interest in Chu’s investigation. “Mr Chu’s career in journalism has spanned two decades, but none of his earlier work for Chinese-language media outlets gained much exposure outside of the region. We are currently negotiating with print media organizations that he has previously written for, and hope to be in a position to publish English translations in the near future.” -End of Release-
  124. May 8, 2016 update: East Asia Tribune is proud to release, for the first time in English, a translation of Chu Jingyi’s first feature article: The Hinomaru Affair: A Secret Plot to Ignite the Taiwan Missile Crisis.
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  128. The Hinomaru Affair: A Secret Plot to Ignite the Taiwan Missile Crisis | East Asia Tribune
  129. While journalist Chu Jingyi recovers from his internment in a North Korean prison camp, East Asia Tribune has purchased the rights to publish his earlier investigation, The Hinomaru Affair, for the first time in English. Released in 1996 by a Chinese-language periodical, this debut article helped Chu launch his career as an investigative journalist. For background, by March 1996 the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis had reached a pivotal moment, and in the lead up to Taiwan’s presidential elections the People’s Republic of China conducted several missile tests within 30 miles of Taiwan’s two busiest ports. Tensions were lifted further with the deployment of an American carrier group in the region, and the slightest miscalculation by either side would have led to disastrous consequences. While history reveals that the situation ended peacefully, Chu’s investigation uncovered a secret plot that almost ignited the crisis into a full-scale war…
  131. March 8, 1996: I arrived back at my desk in the newsroom after a lunch of some of Shanghai’s best xiaolongbao to find a memo from my boss’s boss, our newspaper’s much-feared editor. “Come to my office immediately” was scrawled in his untidy handwriting, with the final word underlined twice. I felt a sinking feeling that my first job after graduating from Renmin University was in jeopardy, because few cadet journalists were ever summoned to the editor’s office without having made some sort of career-ending error. I steeled my nerves and made the long walk across the newsroom, past the classifieds department, before I nervously approached the desk of the editor’s secretary. “Mr Chu, isn’t it?” she asked me, and I nodded. “You can go straight through,” she said, avoiding eye contact and gesturing at the imposing door behind her. I would’ve much preferred to wait outside for a while, so I could try and figure out what mistake I had made to warrant this summons, but I was already moving forward and stepping into the editor’s vast office. At a large desk covered with newspapers, and an impressive view of Shanghai’s skyline behind him, sat Mr Lai, editor in chief. He looked up from the copy of the Worker’s Daily he was reading and I was surprised to see his facial expression was not one of fury, as I had been expecting. Instead, Mr Lai looked worried.
  133. “Chu, thank you for coming. Please, take a seat.” I was stunned momentarily before I moved in the direction of the comfortable-looking chairs in front of his desk. “You can relax, Chu, you’re not in any trouble,” he said, and I exhaled deeply, having forgotten to breathe since I’d entered his room. I sank into the chair opposite Lai and tried my best to look calm. “Can I offer you some baijiu?” he asked, with his hand already reaching for the bottle of Kweichow Moutai that was half-buried underneath the pile of newspapers. “Sure, that would be great,” I replied, hoping it would help calm my nerves. Lai poured me a generous amount of the liquor and then topped up his own glass. My first sip burned the back of my throat, and I had to force myself not to cough. Lai seemed to have no such problem, downing half his glass at once. He set it down and appeared lost in thought for a moment, before he turned his attention back to me.
  135. “How long have you worked here, Chu?” he asked. Before I could even reply, he asked me another question. “Your boss tells me you can speak Japanese, is it true?” I nodded, and was about to tell him I’d been working at the paper for six months before he interrupted me with a long speech that left me completely stunned. Hours later, as I sat on China Eastern flight MU509 bound for Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, I thought back to everything Lai had told me in his office and wondered just what I had gotten myself into.
  137. “Last week, Ms Su travelled to Japan for an assignment,” Lai had said, referring to Su Yijun, one of the most senior reporters at our newspaper and among only a handful of female journalists. Rumours had long persisted in the office that Yijun’s meteoric rise from cadet reporter to fully-credentialed journalist had been in part due to a secret affair with Lai, although there was little in the way of firm evidence to support the theory. Lai continued by explaining that Yijun had been following a lead that a Japanese war criminal missing since WWII may be living in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa Prefecture and the largest settlement on Okinawa Island. Yijun had earlier gained some notoriety for tracking down a Japanese war criminal living in Vietnam, so it made sense that she was working on a similar story. “Ms Su called me two days ago to say she’d uncovered a big story, and she was going to fax through her notes. I asked her to tell me over the phone what she’d discovered, but she said she was worried that the line might be bugged,” Lai had said, before he paused and took another gulp of baijiu. “When I didn’t receive her fax after a few hours, I called her hotel. The receptionist tried her room but received no answer. I called them again yesterday and today, and they finally sent a maid up to check her suite. She found the room had been ransacked.”
  139. The hotel manager wanted to report Su’s disappearance to the local police, but Lai pleaded with him not to do so. As he explained to me, Su had mentioned that the war criminal she was investigating likely had connections in high places to help avoid detection, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some members of law enforcement were involved. Lai reassured the hotel manager that he would send someone to Naha immediately to deal with the situation, and it slowly dawned on me that this was the reason why he’d asked if I spoke Japanese when I entered his office. “I need you to go and find Yijun,” he said, and before I had any chance to protest this impossible task, he was already on the phone to his secretary, asking her to make the necessary travel arrangements. When he hung up, I finally had a chance to ask him what I was supposed to do when I arrived in Naha. “Didn’t you study journalism?” he exploded, his concerned demeanour switching back to the typical blustery rage that I was more familiar with. “Go and ask people questions, take notes and keep your eyes open,” he told me. When it became clear he had no further advice to offer, I rose from the comfortable chair and made a hasty retreat to the safety of his secretary’s desk.
  141. The steep descent into Kai Tak was almost as nerve wracking as my meeting with Mr Lai, and I peered out the window to see us narrowly avoid a block of high-rise apartments. Once the plane arrived at the gate, I had to dash through the terminal and just made it through the transfer area in time for my Dragonair flight to Naha. While I’d been seated right at the back of the China Eastern flight, the only remaining seat when Lai’s secretary booked me on this plane was at the opposite end, in first class. When we reached cruising altitude, I reclined my window seat and accepted a flute of champagne from the beautiful flight attendant, and it struck me that my dream of becoming a real journalist had suddenly and quite-unexpectedly come true. The past six months had been spent stuck at my desk in the newsroom, translating and condensing wire stories, only to get screamed at by my boss whenever I made the slightest error. The only reason I was now sitting on a plane, bound for Japan, was the fact that I was the only journalist in our office – apart from Yijun – who could speak the language, courtesy of having minored in Japanese while I was a student at Renmin. While I was incredibly nervous, I knew that if I did well on this assignment I would never have to translate a wire story again, and that prospect filled me with plenty of enthusiasm.
  143. It was approaching 10 PM when we began our descent into Naha Airport. My attempts to take a nap during the flight had been largely unsuccessful, but I still felt alert and full of nervous energy for what lay ahead. I was the first passenger to deplane and I passed through immigration quickly, grateful that the official didn’t question the tourist box that I’d ticked on my landing card. With no checked luggage – I’d only had time to stuff my passport and my microcassette recorder in my jacket pocket – I went straight through to the arrivals area, where I found a man holding a placard with my name. It had been some months since I’d last had reason to use my Japanese, but I found it all coming back quite naturally as I began to chat with the driver on the short drive from the airport to downtown Naha. I was struck by how developed the city was; being an island in the middle of the East China Sea, about as far away from the main islands of Japan as it was mainland China, I had assumed Okinawa would be a sleepy regional town. Instead, gliding through the city’s streets I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d somehow ended up in one of Tokyo’s outlying districts, with a wealth of modern-looking office buildings and bright neon signs as we navigated towards the hotel. Despite the late hour, being a Friday night the streets were still crowded with cars and pedestrians.
  145. My driver expertly weaved through the slow-moving traffic on Kokusai Dori – International Street – before pulling up to the kerb outside the Naha Sunview Hotel. I was surprised when the passenger door of the car was opened, not by a uniformed employee but by an older man wearing a suit. “Mr Chu, welcome to Okinawa,” he said to me, holding out his hand. “I am Mr Oshiro, manager of the hotel.” I took his hand and gave it a firm shake, and noticed how it was covered in sheen of sweat. Oshiro was a nervous man, and for good reason. If word leaked out to the general public that a Chinese journalist had gone missing and her room had been turned upside-down by unknown parties, it would not bode well for the coming tourist season. “Can you please take me to my colleague’s room?” I asked him, and he bowed solemnly before turning and leading me into the hotel.
  147. The Sunview had a reputation as one of Naha’s best hotels, and I could see why it had earned that distinction as soon as we entered the lobby. If this was the life of a journalist – flying first class and staying at luxury hotels – then I was truly glad I had chosen this career. Oshiro guided me to a waiting elevator, and a female attendant pressed the button for the top floor. “Ms Su was staying in one of our best suites,” he informed me, and I thought back to the office gossip around her supposed affair with editor Lai, now practically confirmed by the fact that she’d booked such extravagant accommodation while on company business. I followed Oshiro down a corridor lined with plush carpet until we arrived outside room 1506, and he surprised me by knocking on the door. “Just in case she returned without our knowledge,” he said sheepishly. When no response came, he retrieved a key from his pocket and unlocked the room.
  149. Noting the shocked expression on my face, he said: “We’ve left it untouched, as Mr Lai requested.” While I knew Su Yijun’s room had been ransacked, I wasn’t prepared for the sight of chaos that greeted me as I stepped inside. Instead of resting on the floor, the mattress and base of the bed had been lifted up and were pressed vertically against the doorway to the balcony, with a huge slash down the centre of each and white stuffing bursting out. The drawers of the bedside tables had been emptied over the ground, and the grill of the air vent had been ripped out and discarded. Judging by the trail of destruction throughout the room, it was clear that multiple people had been involved, and they must have been looking for something important. Staring at the mess, Oshiro began to shake his head. “I wanted to go straight to the police,” he told me, “but your boss threatened to publish a story blaming the hotel for your colleague’s disappearance.” I didn’t want to reveal anything more to Oshiro than I had to, so I didn’t comment on this.
  151. Instead, I asked him how Yijun’s room had been destroyed without it coming to the attention of the hotel until the maid was summoned to check her room. “There are no other guests on this floor at the moment,” he explained. “During the off-season, we tend to only run at half capacity, particularly for our higher-end suites.” I nodded, and he continued. “We’ve already reviewed our CCTV footage from the past few days, but we couldn’t identify any suspicious activity.” He paused, before adding: “The cameras are only in the lobby and car park, so it is possible if the criminals took the stairs…” His voice trailed off, as I suspect he didn’t want to incriminate the hotel’s lack of security measures further. After an awkward moment, he passed me the key to the room. “I’ll give you some time to look around, although I don’t think you’ll find anything of interest. When you’re finished, please lock the door and return the key to the reception desk. If I can have your passport, I’ll arrange for you to be checked in now.” I pulled it from my jacket pocket and handed it to Oshiro, who bowed quickly before leaving the room.
  153. Despite Lai’s thoughts on the matter, nothing I had learned in my journalism degree made me remotely qualified to conduct a search of the room. The forensic evidence that the perpetrators had left would be totally invisible, and I wondered if Lai’s decision to not involve the police was necessary. In any event, I was here now, so I decided to go through the room as methodically as I could for any clue as to Yijun’s whereabouts. I decided to start in the bathroom, which was in an even-worse state than the bedroom. Containers that had once held cosmetics lay smashed against the bottom of the tub, leaving a sticky, flesh-coloured mess. The fan above the shower had been pulled out, and I peered up into the dark recess, deciding not to stick my hand up there and risk electrocution. Returning to the bedroom, I found Yijun’s suitcase in the corner, covering a pile of clothes. I felt like a pervert as I sorted through her garments, looking in the pockets of her jeans and coats, and finding nothing but lint and a ticket for the Shanghai Metro. I turned my attention to the closet, which had more clothes in a state of disarray, but these also yielded no clues. I continued to work my way around the room before I stepped out on the balcony for some fresh air, taking in the grand view of Naha offered to me from the 15th floor.
  155. I picked up a chair that had been knocked to the ground and sat down to take a break and enjoy the view, noting that even the grating covering the drain on the balcony had been lifted up. As I looked down at it, a thought began to cross my mind. I remembered Oshiro’s earlier comment that there were no other guests staying on the same floor as Yijun. Would she have known that? Having read all of her previous articles, I knew a detail like that wouldn’t have escaped her attention. I stood up quickly and walked across to the partition on the east side of the balcony, which was made of thick, frosted glass. Leaning out over the ledge, I had a good view of most of the balcony of the adjacent room. Nothing looked out of place, but I decided to check the balcony on the western side as well. As I leaned out again and peered past the partition, I could see another identical balcony, but something caught my eye as I looked at the ground. The grating covering the drain was crooked, as though it had been moved recently.
  157. My mind raced as I weighed up the possibilities. Had Yijun known she was being followed, and decided to hide something there? Or was it just a coincidence, and a lazy handyman who hadn’t replaced the grating properly after removing a blockage? There was only one way to find out, and I was glad I didn’t have any fear of heights which would prevent me from discovering the truth. I tested the strength of the railing and found it unyielding as I applied my weight to it. Reassured that the ledge would not give way, I swung myself out over the void and across into the balcony of the room next door, landing silently on the floor. Now that I was closer, I could see footprints in the dust next to the drain, which gave me hope that someone – hopefully Yijun – had been here recently. My heart was beating quickly as I lifted up the grating and reached into the darkness, and I felt a surge of excitement when my hand closed around a small cylindrical object. As I brought it towards me to study it more closely, I realized I was holding a plastic film canister.
  159. I wiped the small canister against the fabric of my jacket, as it had collected some moisture from sitting inside the drain. From the weight of it, I knew there was something inside, and I pried open the lid to find a roll of Kodak 35mm film. As I pulled it out of the plastic container, a small piece of paper that must have been wrapped around it came free and fluttered dangerously close to the edge of the balcony. I reached out and managed to catch it, thankful that I had done so before it flew away and out of my grasp forever. It was hard to read in the darkness, so I tucked it safely back into the container with the film and made the dangerous vault back across to the balcony of Yijun’s room. Inside, with the benefit of the light, I retrieved the scrap of paper and was able to read the feminine handwriting clearly. March 9 – 20:00 – Hinomaru meeting at Red Sakura.
  161. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I left Yijun’s room and strode down the corridor for the elevator. I now had a solid lead courtesy of Yijun’s note, and I was thankful that she’d had the foresight to hide it in a place that the mystery men hadn’t been able to discover. Even more exciting was the fact that I’d found a roll of film, which must have been the reason why her room had been turned upside down – and possibly also the reason why she was missing. I thought back to the message that Yijun had written on the paper. Courtesy of studying Japanese I was already familiar with the term Hinomaru – in a literal sense, the meaning is ‘circle of the sun’, but in a practical sense it was used to refer to the Japanese flag. Was Yijun using Hinomaru as a codename for the war criminal she had been hunting? Or did it have some other meaning? I was unsure about that, but I felt that the second part of the note – Red Sakura – was more straight-forward. The name sounded like that of a bar or restaurant, and I had little doubt it was the venue selected by the mysterious Hinomaru for a meeting planned for the following night.
  163. I arrived at the ground floor and walked across to the lobby, where I handed over the key to Yijun’s room to a smiling receptionist. “Thank you Mr Chu,” she said, impressing me with her excellent Mandarin. “If you wait one minute, I will collect your passport and room key.” She returned moments later and passed both items across to me. “We have you in room 219,” she said, and I was momentarily disappointed to learn I’d been booked into a far less opulent floor than Yijun. I thanked her anyway, and asked if she had any knowledge of Red Sakura. Her friendly and pleasant attitude shifted into one of cautiousness. “It’s not a very nice place,” she said briefly, and she paused as though to consider her words. “It’s a hostess bar run by the yakuza, and it’s most popular with wealthy businessmen.” I nodded, having suspected as much from the name. I thanked her and walked out of the hotel to the street.
  165. Kokusai Dori was still bustling, even as I glanced down at my watch to find the time was approaching 1:00 AM. I was caught in two minds about whether I should go to Red Sakura and do some reconnaissance, or find a 24-hour photo lab and have Yijun’s negatives developed first. Ultimately, I decided it made sense to pay a visit to Red Sakura now while it was still open, as there would be plenty of time during the day to deal with the film. I hailed a passing cab and asked the driver to take me to the bar. “That place is no good,” he told me, and offered to take me to a much closer and cheaper venue to the hotel. “I’m meeting some colleagues there,” I insisted, and he pulled out into the traffic with reluctance. What’s so bad about this bar, I wondered. We headed east down Kokusai Dori before making a right onto Orion Dori and then becoming lost among narrow one-way streets that were entirely devoid of traffic. I made a couple of attempts to start a conversation but the driver rebuffed these, apparently still somewhat upset that I’d turned down his suggestion for an alternative bar. After about fifteen minutes we came to a stop at the entrance to a narrow, poorly lit street. “Red Sakura is down there,” he said, pointing into the darkness. At this point I began to question whether I was making a foolish mistake by ignoring the man’s advice, but I reassured myself that a real journalist should be fearless. The driver accepted my payment without comment and drove away quickly after I stepped out of the taxi.
  167. I walked down the alley and was relieved to find a sign above one of the doorways proclaiming Red Sakura to be on the third floor. The other businesses in the building had all closed much earlier in the night, and the elevator appeared to be switched off. I took the stairs and soon arrived at a solid steel door, decorated by a large photograph of sakura – the famous cherry blossoms that were ubiquitous as a symbol of Japan. Unlike the typical pink sakura made famous by tourist brochures, the sakura in this photo was a vivid red hue, and it was shaped in a circular arrangement which bore a strong resemblance to the red circle of the Japanese flag. Was there a connection between the owners of this bar and Hinomaru, whatever Yijun was referring to when she had written that? My thoughts were rudely interrupted when the heavy door unexpectedly began swinging forward, forcing me to step backwards.
  169. Standing before me was a stunning Japanese woman clad in an elaborately-patterned, red kimono. “Welcome to Red Sakura,” she said, before bowing deeply. “Please come in,” she said, and I had little choice now but to accept the invitation. I stepped forward into the foyer and she gestured gracefully at a shoe rack by the door. As I slipped off my shoes and donned a pair of sandals, she introduced herself. “My name is Yuri,” she told me. “Are you joining some friends this evening?” I told her I was not, but lied by saying the concierge at my hotel had recommended the bar as a good place for a drink. I looked closely at Yuri’s face to see if this caused her any doubts, but she seemed to accept it freely. “This is a wonderful place to enjoy some shochu,” she agreed, and she held out her delicate hand politely for me to shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Yuri,” I said. “My name is Jingyi.”
  171. Yuri led me from the foyer down a short corridor and into a large room, which had a long bar along one side where a number of businessmen were seated, sharing drinks with kimono-clad women. Along the other side of the room were a number of traditional Japanese shoji doors made of paper and bamboo. “We can take a drink at the bar if you like,” she said, before turning in the direction of the shoji screens. “Or, if you desire privacy, we have a number of more intimate spaces.” I didn’t want anyone to overhear my conversation with Yuri, so I told her: “Intimate is good.” Her lips curled upwards in a smile that was almost lascivious before being replaced with a more demure expression. “Excellent choice, Jingyi.”
  173. We entered one of the smaller rooms and took our seats on tatami mats at a traditional short-legged table. “Please, order whatever shochu you prefer,” I told her, throwing caution at the wind for my expense claim to be approved when I returned to Shanghai. Yuri pressed a button discreetly attached to the side of the table and the door soon slid open. A black-uniformed waiter took her order and returned soon after with a bottle of expensive-looking shochu, the much-prized Japanese liquor typically distilled from rice or barley. “How do you take yours, Jingyi?” she asked, and I requested it to be served neat, which earned her praise. “Most foreigners prefer it to be mixed, or at least on the rocks,” she commented. “You are more like a Japanese.” We both raised our glasses and made the mandatory toast – Kanpai! – before taking a sip of the shochu. It tasted as expensive as it looked, and I began to worry that even if I did somehow find Yijun and get her back to China, Mr Lai would still be furious at me for spending the newspaper’s money so extravagantly.
  175. After we had enjoyed our first taste of the shochu, Yuri looked at me coquettishly. “What brings you to Okinawa, Jingyi? Business, or pleasure?” I had to be cautious to not reveal too much about the reasons for my visit, but at the same time I lacked the skills to lie easily on my feet. “Business, unfortunately,” I told her. “I’m a journalist with a Chinese newspaper. I’m here to cover local reactions to the Taiwan Strait Crisis.” It was the first thing that jumped into my head. Yuri’s face clouded over momentarily, and I wondered if I had already said too much, but then her demure expression returned. “That is fascinating,” she said, and I was about to embellish my story further when she unexpectedly stood. “I am truly sorry,” she said, “but I just need to visit the ladies’ room for a brief moment.” I nodded and she glided over to the sliding door.
  177. As I sat there by myself, I thought back over the events that had led me to this point. Up until lunchtime, it had been just another boring day at the office, and now I was a thousand miles away in another country, sharing a drink with a Japanese beauty. In my wildest dreams I would never have thought such a thing could be possible. Up until now, everything had gone incredibly smoothly: making the connection in Hong Kong for the flight to Naha; finding Yijun’s hidden film canister at the hotel; and now, visiting Red Sakura, the scene of a secret meeting that was due to take place in a matter of hours. My thoughts also turned back to when I was sitting in Lai’s office much earlier, and he’d shared with me his journalism tips that I’d discounted as useless. Go and ask people questions, take notes and keep your eyes open, he had said. So far, I’d over-indexed on the final part of his advice, and I resolved to try and do more of the first two. The shoji door slid open to herald Yuri’s return, and I turned to admire her svelte appearance as she glided back to her seat opposite me.
  179. “How are you enjoying Okinawa so far?” she asked me, ruining my plans to ask her the first question. “It’s a lovely place,” I told her, and that was true: from what little I had seen so far, Naha was a beautiful city, and I looked forward to having the opportunity to explore it properly during the day. “I haven’t seen much so far, but the view from my room at the Sunview Hotel was delightful.” At this, she giggled politely, and looked poised to ask me another question. I quickly beat her to it. “Tell me, Yuri, what does Hinomaru mean to you?” Once again, her face flickered briefly before she answered. “Hinomaru? The flag of Japan?” she ventured, answering my question with a question. “Yes, I’m aware it’s the name of the flag,” I replied. “I was wondering if you know of any other context? A colleague of mine mentioned it to me before my trip, saying it had some significance to Okinawa.” I was shocked to see her expression completely give way into full-blown fear. “I cannot talk about this,” she hissed, looking nervously at the sliding door. “You must leave immediately.”
  181. I had no time to protest because Yuri had already leapt to her feet and was halfway out the door before I had a chance to untangle myself from the cross-legged pose I had adopted. By the time I left the room she had already vanished, and a burly-looking Japanese man was heading towards me. “Sir, please come with me,” he said, with his voice remaining civil but his body language anything but. He grasped my wrist solidly and led me in the direction of the foyer, with a number of businessmen and women at the bar turning to stare at us. At the foyer, he swung open the steel door and guided me outside. “What about the bill?” I asked, as the door was firmly close in my face. I stood there outside Red Sakura, uncertain what I had done wrong to warrant such a dramatic exit. The only silver lining was that I seemed to be off the hook for the shochu.
  183. Walking back down the staircase, I realized I had made a fool of myself by interrogating Yuri about Hinomaru. Evidently it had some terrible significance, because her reaction had been so swift and visceral as she fled from the room. By being ejected from the Red Sakura, I had blown my chances of visiting again the following night and observing the clandestine meeting. Disappointed at my rookie mistake, I strolled dejectedly back along the alley and onto a slightly-wider but equally-deserted road as a light rain began to fall. My sense of direction had been confused by the twists and turns down the dark streets on the taxi ride here, so I had little option but to continue walking until I arrived at a more populated place. I checked my watch beneath a streetlight to find it was nearly 3:00 AM. I had been able to avoid exhaustion thus far, but it was finally beginning to set in after my crushing defeat at Red Sakura. I walked down several side-streets before finally coming to a wide boulevard which looked promising. Sure enough, a group of vehicles soon approached, and I was relieved to find a taxi among them.
  185. “Please take me to the Sunview,” I said, and the driver accelerated sharply away from the kerb. “This is not a good place to be at night,” he grunted, staring out at the dark streets. I couldn’t help but agree, but I was too tired to engage him in conversation. I stretched out in my seat as we sped through the wet night. The journey back to the Sunview seemed to take longer than my ride to Red Sakura despite much less traffic on the roads, but I was grateful to be safely back. After paying the driver, I stepped into the warmth of the hotel lobby. I noticed that the same receptionist who had helped me earlier was still at the desk, and she smiled warmly at me as I passed. Approaching the elevators, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my room key, patting the bulge of the film canister to ensure it was still safely where I had stored it. The trip from the lobby up to the second floor was brief, and I walked down the corridor to my room feeling grateful that I would soon be able to take a rest.
  187. I turned the key in the lock and reached around on the wall groping for the light switch. The door slammed shut before I could find it, so I was momentarily surrounded by darkness before my fingers found the controls. As I turned around to face the room, I felt the blood drain from my head as I stared at the horrific sight. Under the blood-stained sheets of the bed was a bulge that could only be a human body, and spilling out over the pillow was a cascade of black hair. Was it Yijun? I stood frozen, unable to do anything but stare at the motionless body of my colleague.
  189. When I finally summoned up the courage to take a step in the direction of the bed, I was shocked once more by a burst of loud knocking on the door of my room. “This is the police,” came a shout from the hallway. “Open the door immediately!”
  191. The second instalment of The Hinomaru Affair is available here.
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