Finally they reached the top of the stairs. They walked Barry down a concrete hallway. Jung-Ho told Barry to turn left into an open doorway. He did.
The room looked much like a meeting room in Japan. There was a window with translucent glass that admitted light, but the window did not permit any real view of the outside.
There were no pictures on the wall, save one small portrait of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator of the country.
There was a small table with four chairs. Jung-Ho gestured for Barry to sit. Jung-Ho sat across the table from him.
Sgt. Park remained standing in the doorway. The big man looked anxious to administer another beating.
“You don’t like Sgt. Park very much, do you?” Jung-Ho asked.
“I don’t like any of you,” Barry said honestly. “You’ve kidnapped me and brought me here unlawfully. I’m cooperating only under duress. But to answer your question: No, I don’t care for men who beat me with clubs. Would you?”
Jung-Ho ignored all of the questions in what Barry had just said—both implied and explicit. Instead, he posed another question.
“Are you familiar with Panmunjom?” Jung-Ho asked.
“No,” Barry said. “I must have missed that section of the tour book.”
Once again, Jung-Ho let the sarcasm pass.
“Panmunjom is located on the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone, the so-called JSA, Joint Security Area, or Truce Village. Surely you’ve seen photos of it.”
“I suppose so,” Barry allowed. He had, indeed, seen photos of the Truce Village at the DMZ. It was a narrow conglomeration of buildings, where small numbers of lightly armed soldiers from North Korea stood only yards apart from soldiers of South Korea and the United States.
Barry also knew that this was a remnant from the still unsettled Korean conflict. It was here that the two technically-still-at-war sides carried out negotiations—as they had been since the early 1950s.
“Park was stationed at Panmunjom for a number of years,” Jung-Ho went on. “We always send our largest men there. So do the American imperialists and their lackeys in the South. I believe the rule for the American side is that soldiers have to be at least six feet tall. We try to match the same standards. But while it isn’t hard to find a six-feet tall American, it is much more difficult here. As you probably know, foreign aggression and trade embargoes have made food scarce, and lowered nutritional standards. That means that people in the DPRK are shorter, as a rule. Sergeant Park, therefore, was a natural choice for an assignment at Panmunjom. But he’s been here at the Yang-Suk Foreign Friends Camp for two years.”
Barry was struck by the surreal nature of all this. Less than an hour ago, he had been in the horrible courtyard, moments away from execution. Now Jung-Ho was having a civil, if ideologically tainted, conversation with him. As if he really was a foreign friend.
This is all staged, Barry reminded himself.
Barry heard the sound of someone pushing a wheeled cart in the hallway outside. Sgt. Park stepped aside. An older woman, wearing plain civilian dress, entered with a cart bearing a plate full of rice, and what looked like pickled vegetables. There was also a glass pitcher full of water, and a drinking glass.
Barry’s stomach growled at the sight of the food. He suddenly wanted the water very badly, too.
“You must be hungry,” Jung-Ho said. “And thirsty.”
Barry knew that he was both famished and dehydrated. He wanted to tell Jung-Ho to go to hell, and to take his food and water with him. He wanted to refuse even this modest nourishment from the North Korean regime. The acceptance of food was another form of cooperation, however subtle.
He knew, though, that he was dramatically weakened, and that a hunger strike wasn’t going to get him out of here. North Korea wasn’t the kind of place where hunger strikes were effective. The regime had already imposed an involuntary hunger strike on most of the country.
The woman placed the food and water before Barry, along with a pair of chopsticks.
The water was cloudy—not completely clear. It also appeared to be room temperature. No ice cubes, of course. But if the water didn’t kill him or give him dysentery, it would quench the aching thirst that now tormented him—a thirst that he had mostly ignored until now, having been shocked and awed by so much else.
Barry took a closer look at the items before him. The food was rice and pickled vegetables, just as he had thought. Plain, with perhaps a minimal dash of spice. A far cry from the fare served at the Ichiryu Hotel Restaurant.
“Can you use chopsticks?” Jung-Ho asked. “If not—”
“Chopsticks are fine,” Barry said, picking up the two wooden sticks. He positioned them in his right hand, which was suddenly shaking.
Jung-Ho said something to the woman. She left with her cart.
“Don’t eat too fast,” Jung-Ho told Barry. “Or you’ll be sick. You haven’t eaten since your dinner in Osaka.”
“How much time has passed since I was in Osaka?” Barry asked.
“About forty-eight hours.”
Forty-eight hours. He had missed his flight, of course. By now, Tessa and Ryan were probably wondering about him. Nagase and Sato were anxiously looking for those emails he’d promised.
Barry knew that right now he needed to get this food and water inside him.
He ate and drank, barely tasting any of it. All the while, he tried to figure a way out of this mess.
He couldn’t think of any—not yet, at least.
“How is the food?” Jung-Ho asked.
“The food is fine,” Barry said.
“Would you like anything else? We don’t have much—but I could order some tea for you, if you’d like.”
Now it was Barry’s turn to selectively ignore what was said. He was tired of this game. He swallowed the last bite of rice, and drank the last of the water in his glass. Then he spoke.
“I want some answers,” he said. “I want to know why I’m here, what you people want from me, and when I’m going home.”
At first Jung-Ho said nothing, so Barry rephrased and qualified the question.
“What do you people want from me? I have some money, but it’s all back in the United States. And it isn’t very much money—at least it wouldn’t be much to a national government—not even yours. You people probably spent more money getting me here than I could possibly give you. I suppose you could pressure the American government for some concessions in return for my release, but the current American administration isn’t exactly known for its love of compromise.”
“I already told you, Barry, we don’t want money from you. Nor do we want to use you as a…bargaining chip.”
“I’m confused then,” Barry said. “Very confused.”
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is surrounded by enemies. There are many nations on earth that want to see our downfall. Nevertheless, our Supreme Leader works tirelessly for our peaceful development.”
Barry was tempted to interrupt and contradict. He knew, however, that the North Koreans took their national propaganda as a kind of catechism. They were worse than religious fanatics.
Let him get to the point, Barry thought. He will eventually.
“Our country therefore liberates the labor of certain foreigners with specialized skills,” Jung-Ho said, “to use for a higher purpose.”
Now Barry sensed a connection to his presence here—sort of.
“You mean that you kidnap foreigners and force them to work for your government?”
“We don’t kidnap them, Barry. We liberate them. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the most perfect, most wonderful nation on earth. For seventy years, we have been blessed to receive the guidance of the Kims. Kim Il-sung, our Eternal Leader, Kim Jong-il, our Great Leader, and Kim Jung-un, our present, Supreme Leader.”
“All fine and good,” Barry said. “But what could you people possibly want from me? I’m not a nuclear physicist or a germ warfare biologist. I have no knowledge of high-precision machine tools. I’ve never been in the military. Hell, I wasn’t even in the Boy Scouts.”
“We didn’t liberate you to work on our weapons systems, Barry. You’re here because of your work as a marketing consultant.”
“You’re kidding me.” Barry said.
“Oh, I assure you, Barry: This is no joke. That much, at least, we should be able to agree on.”