Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Inspector O and the Case of the Dearly Departed Leader

North Korea's most famous fictional police detective smells something fishy in the circumstances surrounding Kim Jong Il's death.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Once upon a time, an essay was considered the most effective way to dissect and analyze a problem. Writers could write; readers could read. Lately, the world is taken with graphics and bullets, disconnected bursts of words, to tell the tale. Sentences have gone the way of the carrier pigeon.

All good, says I. Pick your poison. For me, better than the essay I prefer a dialogue, not necessarily Socratic. For that reason, whenever North Korea makes the headlines, I call an old acquaintance of mine in Pyongyang -- let's call him Inspector O of the Ministry of People's Security -- to find out if he knows what's happening. He usually does, or pretends he does, which makes him no worse, and sometimes better, than the passel of analysts who inhabit my clime.

Naturally, a few nights ago, it was O's number I dialed straightaway. Still groggy from an earlier call from a friend, an excitable Wall Street trader who first gave me the news that Kim Jong Il had died, I figured O would set me straight.

Once upon a time, an essay was considered the most effective way to dissect and analyze a problem. Writers could write; readers could read. Lately, the world is taken with graphics and bullets, disconnected bursts of words, to tell the tale. Sentences have gone the way of the carrier pigeon.

All good, says I. Pick your poison. For me, better than the essay I prefer a dialogue, not necessarily Socratic. For that reason, whenever North Korea makes the headlines, I call an old acquaintance of mine in Pyongyang — let’s call him Inspector O of the Ministry of People’s Security — to find out if he knows what’s happening. He usually does, or pretends he does, which makes him no worse, and sometimes better, than the passel of analysts who inhabit my clime.

Naturally, a few nights ago, it was O’s number I dialed straightaway. Still groggy from an earlier call from a friend, an excitable Wall Street trader who first gave me the news that Kim Jong Il had died, I figured O would set me straight.

"Impossible," I was thinking as I waited for him to pick up. "Don’t believe it."

Disbelief is normal when leaders die. People tend not to believe it at first — too unnerving, too disruptive for the mental universe. And then even when they are sure it is true, they still don’t comprehend what it means. At least not at first. But I figured that, unlike me, Inspector O would have his thoughts sorted out already.

"Figured you’d call," he said before I had a chance to say hello. "Don’t tell me: You can’t believe it."

"How did you know it was me? Your phones have caller ID now?"

He laughed. "No, no one else is using the phone today. Bad etiquette to be on a cell phone when grief-stricken."

"So what happened?"

"What happened? You read the bulletin. The man shuffled off the mortal coil." O sounded hoarse, as if he had been talking a lot. His English was usually good, but when he was stressed, his accent crept back. It was real thick at the moment.

"Mortal coil?" I thought this sounded a little casual, even for O, but decided not to dwell on it.

He continued. "’Overwork,’ they said. Could be. High marks in the plausibility department. You people always called him a recluse. Tell me, when was the last time a recluse appeared well over 100, maybe 150, times in public in a year, took numerous long rail trips, and never got off the phone with his subordinates?"

"Seems like he took one rail trip too many."

"Well, ask not for whom the bell tolls, I guess."

"Your man had had a stroke a few years ago. Why didn’t someone tell him to slow down? Why the frantic pace?"

Surprisingly, he was game. "Yeah, how come? And how come he gained all that weight this past year? No one told him it was bad for his health? You have to wonder."

A long silence ensued. I listened for the scratching of the monitors’ pens, but there was nothing. They might be weeping on the streets; more likely they had been pulled off for more important targets. O and I had been talking to each other for over a decade; a file can only get so thick.

I picked up the thread. "The story is he died early on the 17th, but we only heard about it on 19th? That’s a long wait, isn’t it?"

"Nah, not so long. They couldn’t very well announce it on the 17th, now could they? You have to announce these things at noon, and noon on the 17th was too soon if he died that same morning. Not enough time to get ducks in a row."

"What do you know about ducks in a row?"

"You’d be surprised." O likes to do that — make me think he knows more than he does, which he does sometimes. Know more, I mean.

"If the 17th was too soon, what was wrong with the 18th?" I figured I’d press him a little more on this point. Maybe it would annoy him enough to say something he didn’t mean to say. "Plenty of time by the 18th. You’re telling me 28 hours was not enough time for your ducks?"

"How long do you think it took them to announce Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994?" He didn’t sound annoyed. He sounded breezy, like he already knew I’d go one question too far.

"I can’t guess."

"One and a half days. Not quite 36 hours. Look it up. You can bet they weren’t going to announce this death quicker than they did Kim Il Sung’s." O paused. "You still think it’s worth making an issue of 18 extra hours?"

"You’re the police detective. You tell me."

Silence.

I pressed on. "All right, riddle me this: They say in the death announcement that they notified the people on the 17th. Did they?"

"Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. No one notified me. First I heard of it was the noon broadcast on Monday."

"Is that so? No rumors before that? No signs of something not being right? Special troops dispatched to bridges, extra guards at key installations, that sort of thing? There are reports of soldiers milling around."

"I don’t talk about security on the phone, and especially with foreigners. Which, I might point out, you are."

"OK, take a step back. Let’s leave the details behind. Broadly, in nonspecific terms that can’t get anyone in trouble, what do you think happened?"

"The announcement said he had a heart attack."

"You believe that?"

"Why wouldn’t I believe it?" At last he sounded annoyed, not much, but enough so I could hear it even over a cell phone from 6,000 miles away. "Sure, there have been some suspicious car accidents over the past few years. So what? That doesn’t mean a heart attack is made up, does it? Well, does it?"

O knew he had gone further than he wanted to, so he pulled back. "If you’re so sure it was something other than a heart attack, something planned, you need to come up with motive, opportunity, and means. But you don’t have anything, do you? Admit it, you’re just spinning theories."

I tried a different tack. "Fine, let’s put things another way. This is just theoretical, a textbook exercise, OK? Let’s say you had a suspicious turn of mind. If you did, what would make you look twice at an official story about a high-level death? Or put it another way: What should make me look twice?"

O snorted. "That’s exactly your problem, isn’t it? Too much focus on the words. You need to raise your head out of the paper and look at the context. (That’s what happens to fish — no sense of context. Next thing you know, daddy has gone for a fillet.) I’ll give you a theory. Just a theory. It’s not mine. But I’ll give it to you. He was…"

O cleared his throat. I was pretty sure I knew the problem. The ground had opened up beneath him. Whatever he thought of the leader — and he never, ever talked about it with me — this death had opened a crevice too big to ignore. The man was dead, and what about them? What were the rest of them supposed to do now?

He started again. "He was about to give up the nuclear program to the Americans, and someone wanted to make sure he couldn’t do it. Have you looked at our newspapers recently? Funny articles warning against giving in to the imperialists." O paused again, and this time I could hear him take a breath. "Neat theory, you think? All boxed up and ready for distribution. Not mine."

"Panic? You’re saying someone panicked?"

"Nah. You want panic? Look at July 2008 when the big man had his stroke. That was the edge of the cliff; they looked over the edge, and no one liked what they saw. That’s when they put procedures in place to deal with it. From that point on, everyone knew it was coming, so they worked out a drill and they followed it as soon as the word went out the other day. I assume it was a code word. Something that would turn your blood to ice," there was the slightest pause, "or maybe get it pumping. File drawers get unlocked; lists of people get taken out of files, lists of people to lock in their offices. Metaphorically, I suppose, though maybe not. A few probably came out feet first. I say probably. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know."

"And the son, your new leader?"

O coughed. He was nervous all of a sudden. "He has a protective layer around him, for now. No one is going to blink the wrong way in his presence for a while. Trust me. If he’s even in anyone’s presence, which I doubt. Remember the pictures of Kim Jong Il at his father’s funeral? All pale and sort of torn up? This is going to be worse, I’d say. Believe or not, we are capable of grief."

"I don’t doubt it. You don’t have to tell me."

"I don’t? Have you looked at your newspapers recently? Have you seen the poison they have spewed on their front pages in the past few days?"

"Leave it," I said quietly. "Leave that for now." I gave him a decent few seconds to calm down. "So, the official version of what happened is accurate."

"You said it; I didn’t."

I couldn’t let this drop, not without one more stab. "Heart attack, it’s sort of a cliché."

"Yeah, well, we don’t have any drones, if that’s what you’re suggesting."

"Let’s stipulate that there was a heart attack. People scramble with first aid, heroic measures. Everything they try is ineffective. Finally, the inevitable. Who’s in the traveling party? Who gets notified first?"

"Uninteresting, completely uninteresting. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know." He paused. "Anyway, it depends, doesn’t it? Who calls who, and why? It depends. I don’t care what happened. Past tense. Very past tense. You have a past tense that you call the imperfect, right? Let’s say we’re dealing with the imperfect past."

"Good for you, Inspector. You have your eyes focused ahead. What is out there in the future tense? What do you see that I don’t?"

"Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble." First John Donne, and now the bard.

I looked suspiciously at the phone.

"You keep forgetting, Church, I know my Shakespeare. Care to try me?"

"No. Not now. What about the future?"

"Everyone thinks we’re a rotten apple about to fall from the tree. They think we’re rotten, and they’re waiting for us to drop. North, South, East, West — find me a friend, I dare you."

"Surely you’re not including China in your bubbling pot these days."

"China?" He laughed.

James Church, a pseudonym, is a former Western intelligence officer with long experience in Asia. He is the author of the Inspector O detective series and contributes occasionally to the 38north.org blog on North Korea.

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