As Barry walked, he looked for non-Asians.
It seemed vaguely racist to look for non-Asian or European people, but Barry knew that he had to play the odds a bit if he hoped to find anyone who might be able to talk to him.
Everyone here seemed to be from somewhere in Asia. And none of them were speaking English. There were many conversations going on around him. All of them were incomprehensible.
His tray and cup of tea in hand, Barry proceeded out into the rows of long tables.
Then he saw the thin, tall blonde woman. Like Barry, she was wearing the unisex gray of the Yang Suk Foreign Friends Camp.
The blonde woman stood near one of the tables. She was engaged in a conversation with a short, squarish Korean woman. The Korean woman wore a white, full-body apron. She appeared to be one of the camp’s kitchen workers.
As Barry drew closer, he caught bits of their conversation, and he got another surprise. The blonde woman was speaking to the Korean woman in Korean.
Barry was no linguist. While in Japan, however, he had met several Americans who spoke Japanese fluently, and many more who made bad attempts at speaking it. He was usually able to distinguish between the dabblers and the truly proficient.
This blonde woman spoke fluently. Her speed, accent, and inflection sounded authentic. There was no awkwardness or diffidence in her use of the language.
The kitchen worker walked away. The blonde woman sat back down at the nearby table.
Seated across the table from her was an Asian man. He was about Barry’s age, give or take a few years.
“Anyway—” the blonde woman began, in English now.
English, Barry thought. Bingo.
Barry saw that there was an open space next to the blonde woman on the bench. Barry was in no mood to stand on pretense. Not under these circumstances.
As Barry approached, the Asian man across the table noticed him first. The blonde woman saw her companion’s attention distracted, and looked up at Barry.
She appeared to be in her mid-thirties, give or take a few years. Barry noticed now that she was actually quite pretty.
No one had to tell him, of course, that noticing a pretty woman had landed him here in the first place.
That damn Mi-kyung, he thought. He wondered if he would ever see her again.
But the blonde woman was different. She obviously wasn’t here to entrap him. On the contrary: There was something in her expression that was guarded. Emotional baggage, perhaps.
But who wouldn’t have emotional baggage, living in a place like this against their will?
“Excuse me,” Barry said. “I’m new here, and I wondered if I might sit down.”
“Sure,” she said. Her English was definitely native, and American-accented.
Barry took a seat beside the woman. He was careful not to sit too close.
The man across the table smiled at him. He was trying, at least, to make Barry feel welcome in what was an awkward situation for all three of them.
Barry knew that this was no time to play shy, so he introduced himself.
“I’m Barry Lawson.”
“Shoji Tanaka,” the Asian man said.
“Ah, you speak Japanese?”
“Sukoshi dake. Only a little. They took me while I was in Japan. The North Koreans, I mean.”
“They took me in Japan, too.” Tanaka said.
“How long have you been here?”
Tanaka sighed. “Too long. Five and a half years, to be exact.”
“I just got here. It already feels like too long.”
Barry turned to the blonde woman.
“And you are…?”
“You’re an American.”
“Yes. From Wisconsin.”
“Where did you learn Korean?”
“In Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, to be specific.”
“How did you get here?”
“Same as you, probably,” she said. “I didn’t come here voluntarily. I was an English teacher in South Korea. They abducted me.”
“How long ago was that?”
“I’ve been in Korea for nine years,” Anne said. “Four years in the South. Five years here.”
“I’ve already been told that this is a place for foreigners who they put to work. What kind of work are you doing for them?”
“I teach English at a school in Pyongyang,” she said. “A school for the sons and daughters of the WPK.”
“WPK?” Barry asked.
“The Workers’ Party of Korea. That is technically the organization that runs the country. In reality, though, the country is a run by the Kim Dynasty. As you’re probably aware.”
Barry looked across the table to Tanaka.
“I was a production manager at a Toyota plant in Hokkaido,” he explained. “In northern Japan. That was where they took me from.”
“And what do they have you doing here?”
“The same thing I did for Toyota,” Tanaka said. “I work at a Pyeonghwa Motors plant. One of the state-owned automobile plants. Only they call me a ‘production advisor’. I work alongside a Korean WPK official, of course, who is the official manager.”
Barry looked around at the big room, at the cafeteria tables. “There must be several hundred people here—at least. All of these people are abductees, I take it?”
“Yes,” Anne said. “This has been going on for years, for what it’s worth. The outside world knows about it. It’s no secret.”
“You’re kidding me.” Barry had certainly never heard of it.
Anne gestured to their surroundings. “Does any of this look like a joke?”
“I’m just saying, I’d never heard about it.”
Anne ignored his attempt at conciliation. “In the nineteen seventies,” she said, “Kim Jong-il, who would become the ruler of the country in nineteen ninety-four, was focused on developing North Korea’s film industry. So he ordered the kidnapping of a famous South Korean actress and her husband, a director. The two of them escaped after years in captivity, in nineteen eighty-six.”
“They did escape, then,” Barry said thoughtfully.
He picked up his chopsticks, and plunged them into his pile of rice and stew. He didn’t want to know what the meat might be.
He took a bite of the stew. Tanaka looked at him questioningly from the other side of the table.
“It’s edible,” Barry said. And it was, if a trifle bland. “Anyway, about the movie director and the actress. You were saying…”
“Yes, the movie director and the actress escaped” Anne said. “But don’t let that get your hopes up. They escaped only after they had spent years cultivating the trust of Kim Jong-il. And they didn’t escape from here. They escaped while in Europe. Kim allowed them to go on a trip to Austria in connection with a film project. With guards and handlers, of course. But they managed to get away from the North Koreans. They sought, and were granted, refuge in the American embassy in Vienna.”
Barry had no intention of being here for years.
“How do we get out of here?” he said, getting right to the point.
Anne frowned at him. She looked across the table at Tanaka.
“Quit talking like that,” she said, in a low voice. “Don’t ever say anything like that again.”
“Why?” Barry said, matching her low tone.
“Because things can get much, much worse. All of this that we have here—all this food. It’s luxurious by North Korean standards.”
“I’ve figured as much,” Barry said. “They want to keep us happy—or just happy enough—so that we don’t lose all incentive to work for them. But they hold the threat of terror over our heads.”
“It’s no mere idle threat,” Anne said. “If you step out of line, here, you end up against a wall.”
“I know,” Barry said. “I’ve seen one of their walls.”
He briefly told them both about his initial experience in North Korea, the killing line in the little muddy compound.
He omitted the part about him breaking down, begging for his life.
“You do know, then,” Anne said. “These people are not to be trifled with.”