Inspector O and the O’Reilly Factor

Photo by Peter Kolk.

From time to time I meet an old friend, Inspector O of the Ministry of People’s Security, in different locations around the world. O has some insights into what goes on in Pyongyang, but even more, provides a useful counterpoint to what is usually accepted as common wisdom about people and events in North Korea. 

“You seem even more peckish than usual. I thought you’d like it here.” 

“It’s hot, it’s humid, this ficus tree isn’t giving much shade, and the walk up the hill nearly killed me. Otherwise, I’m fine. I’d smile but I think my cheek muscles have melted.” 

Inspector O and I were sitting in an old hilltop Portuguese fort with a view of Macau. It was not even mid-morning but already warm enough to make the walk back down the hill to the old city seem uninviting. 

“All right,” I said, “I apologize, though I realize it’s always a mistake to show weakness to you. Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but you’re the one who called this meeting.” 

“No, I didn’t forget. I had thought, though, we might do it in an air-conditioned hotel with cool drinks and the sound of fountains. What I did forget was that you are averse to creature comforts.” He took out a handkerchief and mopped his face. “Move over. You’re hogging the shade, what little there is. Why are they so enamored of ficus trees in this part of the world?” 

There is never any sense arguing trees with him. I don’t know a ficus from a fig. O had sent a message saying he would be in Macau “on business” in April, and if I wanted to have a chat, I should make arrangements to stay in the Hotel Lisboa. He wouldn’t be staying there, he said, but he’d find me. The Ministry of People’s Security didn’t provide much in the way of per diem, but he never seemed the worse for it. 

“Well, it’s your dime,” I said. “What is this about? I don’t especially like sweltering up here, believe or not.” 

Inspector O reached in his pocket and pulled out a small bottle of hand sterilizer. “Want some?” 

“What is that for?” 

“You know, cleanest race,” he shrugged. “A lot of rubbish, if you ask me.” 

“I don’t think that’s what the phrase refers to.” 

“Is that a fact?” He squirted some on his hands and rubbed them together briskly. “I didn’t think so, either. But they issued it along with my new passport. I have to say, I haven’t been sick since I started using it. You, on the other hand, look peaked.” 

“You have a new passport? Mind if I see it?” 

“You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” He grinned. 

“Out of idle curiosity, is this particular document in your name?” 

“What sort of a question is that?” He looked wounded. “Of course it isn’t in my name.” 

“Is it even the right nationality?” 

He grinned again. “Want to see me samba?” 

We were both quiet for a few moments. Finally, O broke the silence. “Why are you stuck in the mud again?” 

“Me?” 

“You know what I mean. Your people are hip deep in a swamp of their own making. Things should have been moving six months ago on the diplomatic front. Last August the door was wide open when Clinton came to dinner. It was as clear as day that the stars in Pyongyang were aligned. Instead, for the past six months, all we hear about is strategic patience. You don’t want to play that game, believe me.  We may not have much, but patience we have by the bucketful.” 

“You can’t wait forever.” 

“We don’t have to wait forever. We only have to wait until November.” 

“You on the RNC mailing list or something?” 

“No, but I watch Wolf News.” 

“Fox. And you do?” 

“The Propaganda and Agitation Department has started using it as a teaching tool, part of our new opening policy. They record it on CDs and hand them out during training sessions.” 

“You’re joking.” 

“Not at all. After we got our raises last December, everyone went out and bought DVD players. Of course, a few people in the provincial offices lost money in the redenomination, but they are generally not very smart anyway. That’s why they’re not in Pyongyang.” 

“We heard there were riots.” 

“Don’t tell me you watch Fox News, too.” 

“Were there riots?” 

“Don’t be ridiculous. A little pushing and shoving is all. You know how it is. We’ve had soccer riots that were harder to handle.” 

“I suppose you’re going to tell me things are stable.” 

“You’ll believe what you want to believe, that’s how it is with your people. In fact, we prefer it if you think we’re on the road to collapse.” He stood up. “I’m not going to sit here anymore and bake. You can swelter in patience if you want, but I’m going back down the hill to find something cold to drink.” 

“No, I don’t have that much patience either. I’m coming, too.” 

“Well, wait until I have a head start. Give me five minutes. I don’t want anyone to think we’re pals.” 

“Are we?” 

He laughed. “If you see Bill O’Reilly, tell him I said hello.”

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