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PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA
October 26, 0430 Korea Standard Time
The dilapidated, mustard-brown van slowed to a stop in the predawn hours as it approached the checkpoint leading to the housing area where many of the senior officers of the Korean People's Army-the KPA-lived in near-Western accommodations. The exclusive community was south of the Taedong River, close to the KPA's military headquarters in central Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, but far enough away to be suburban by most standards. It was a short ride for these senior military leaders when their staff cars came to collect them for the journey to KPA military headquarters each morning.
But the luxuries and perks afforded these fifty- and sixty-something officers who had clawed their way to the top of one of the KPA's five branches did little to obscure the Spartan, even primitive, living conditions of this nation of 25 million people. Pyongyang residents lived in perpetual misery with perennially unhealthy air, shoddy housing, unreliable utilities, a decrepit health care system, little access to quality food, and virtually none of the amenities most people take for granted. Even the road leading to this housing area was made of cheap asphalt and filled with potholes and ruts that made navigating it a challenge. With a standing army of over a million men, the fourth largest in the world, and over another seven million reserve and paramilitary forces, it was easy to see why there was little money left over to meet the basic needs of the North Korean people.
Two sleepy soldiers manning the wooden guard shack emerged to check the papers of the van's driver. They groused as they stepped out into the below-freezing temperatures. These types of vans, made by the Jianghuai Automobile Co. Ltd. or some other Chinese auto manufacturer, were a common sight in the early morning hours in this neighborhood. The van that was stopped at the guard shack, like the others that made this journey, was most likely bringing fresh fruit, vegetables, and freshly baked bread-things that were an unreachable luxury for ordinary North Koreans-to the household staffs of the senior officers living here. By the time these officers rose, they and their families would have meals prepared for them that would pass muster in most four-star hotels in the West.
As one soldier examined the documents offered by the driver, the other, following standard protocol, moved to the van's passenger side, where he looked down on the sleeping man in the passenger seat. He banged on the window to roust the sleeper, and, as the man lifted his head, the soldier made a circling motion with his hand, indicating he should roll the window down. The passenger complied while the other soldier continued to shine his flashlight on the sheath of documents the driver had handed him.
Suddenly, the driver grunted, and both men in the van raised pistols and shot the guards in the head. The silencers did their job and muffled most of the noise. Brain matter, blood, and tissue exploded from the back of both soldiers' heads, and they collapsed onto the snow-covered road. Within seconds, three men emerged from the back of the vehicle. They picked up the dead guards and threw them in the back of the van, then used small shovels to rake the snow around to cover the ground where the guards had fallen and to mask the fact there was anything amiss. Their task complete, they jumped into the back of the van as it lurched away and headed for the home of Vice Marshal Sang Won-hong, deputy chief of the general staff of the KPA.
* * *
Several hundred meters up a gentle hill, Vice Marshal Sang, his wife, and his three sons slept soundly while their household staff of four busied themselves in their home's expansive kitchen. They piled wood into the cast iron stove to provide extra warmth in the kitchen, cleaned and cooked food, and made preparations for the family's breakfast, which was still several hours away.
Though they were servants and of a lower class in North Korea's society than the family, as live-in help for a senior military officer they enjoyed conditions that made them the envy of most of their countrymen. They bent to their various tasks with energy since they knew they could be dismissed at the whim of the vice marshal or his mercurial wife. One of their fellow workers had been terminated just two months ago and was thrown, weeping, into the alley behind the home.
* * *
The van stopped two hundred yards from the house. Five black-clad figures emerged, their faces obscured by ski masks, their hands holding Chinese-made Type 77 semiautomatic pistols with silencers. They moved with purpose and were soon pressed against the outside wall of Vice Marshal Sang's kitchen. A nod from their leader, and they burst into the room.
"Silence and you will not be harmed."
The only man among the household staff, the general's butler, stepped forward. "What do you want here?"
"That's not your business, old man," the leader barked as he pressed the barrel of the pistol to the butler's forehead.
The intruders moved quickly, cuffing the staff with plastic ties and duct-taping their mouths shut. They frog-walked them into the large pantry and slammed the door shut.
"Remember the layout," the leader said. "One bullet to each of their heads, then take everything of value, especially money and jewelry. There will likely be a small standing safe. Carry that away, too."
They dashed up the staircase and split up to cover the bedrooms on the second floor-the general and his wife in their large master bedroom and each of the young boys in their individual bedrooms. The silencers muffled most of the sound as the intruders put one bullet in the head of each victim.
The killing done, the five men concentrated on collecting anything of value in the vice marshal's home. They shoved money, jewelry, furs, and anything else small and movable into large heavy-duty bags. Once they deposited those bags in the van, two of the men returned to carry out the floor safe while the three others removed the artwork from the home's walls.
It was all over in ten minutes. The heavily laden van moved down the hill and toward an unknown destination.
Copyright © 2015 by Jack Ryan Limited Partnership and S&R Literary, Inc.