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The Traveller by Duncan James

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Genre/Category: Crime, Thriller, Mystery
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The Traveller - Duncan James
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An intriguing spy thriller. British and American intelligence agencies discover that the Chinese are carrying out secret research with the North Koreans to develop new nuclear weapons. A daring and dangerous operation to capture the details is carefully planned by MI6 and eventually put into action but a top British agent finds himself on his own in a hostile country, and in a desperate race against time.  He eventually manages to secure the information from a North Korean scientist before he dies of cancer and before the American CIA can get their hands on it, only to find that his escape route has totally collapsed. His only option appears to be for him to escape across China, to find the only possible source of help left to him. He evades detection, capture and attempts on his life before finally reaching home, where tragedy eventually catches up with him in a moving and unexpected twist at the end.

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Dr. Choi Shin did not believe, as he was constantly told, that the Americas were scheming to invade and humiliate his homeland, or that South Korea was a servant of its American master. Neither did he believe that North Korea was a great country who’s brave and brilliant leaders were the envy of the world.

But he was the first to admit that he had not, so far, had a bad life, especially when compared with many others in his country. He knew how harsh life could be. Indeed, it was barbaric beyond belief for many, so he had heard.

He knew about the prisons for political enemies of the People’s Republic of North Korea.

His brother was in one.

And he knew about the hard-labour camps, with their many hundreds of thousands of inmates who had really done nothing wrong by normal, civilised standards, but who were nevertheless being made to suffer horrendously. But he also understood that this was not a normal, civilised country in which he lived. He not only realised the fact, in spite of the constant brain-washing propaganda, but was also prepared to admit it, although not in public. If he did that, he too would become one of the many faceless and desperate inmates of the gulags.

So he kept his views to himself, knowing all the time that he was not alone either in his beliefs or in his fear of sharing them.

He knew the truth of the old saying that for evil to exist, good men must do nothing.

He did nothing.

Instead, he worked hard and prostrated himself at the feet of his Glorious Leader, Kim Jung-un as he was expected to do.

Which was how, in such a despotic country, he did well. He had worked hard, stuck to the rules, and kept his views to himself.

He now found himself in a position of comparative privilege, living in a small Government apartment, with enough income to allow him access to a few essentials which were not provided for him, and even some spare for the odd luxury now and then.

But he was not free. He had no access to any news media other than the official outpourings, which only contained propaganda dressed up as news about the State itself and its leader. It was a punishable offence to even try to access any foreign news, or entertainment for that matter. He was certainly not free to express his own views. The State machinery insisted that he should not have any views of his own, and he did not have any right to express anything other than the official version of events. He was not free to speak.

So he said nothing, as well as doing nothing, against the State.

In spite of all, though, he had managed to learn enough to understand that there was a world outside his own, and that it was very different. And, he almost dared to believe, better.

Although he was not yet one of them, there were people in the country who had travelled, or who had met foreign visitors. So word spread about how other people lived, and the conditions in which they lived. The more he learnt, the more Shin wanted to learn. He wanted to travel to find out for himself.

Through his diligence and allegiance to the leadership, he had managed to improve his position in society. He had done well at school, progressed to University, successfully completed his studies, and was now employed on important scientific work.

He was one of the country’s top nuclear physicists.

Mixing as he now did with some of the elite of the world’s most secretive nation, he was still denied the basic freedoms of speech and movement. Even those who he regarded as friends could never be totally trusted. The Government spied on its own people, and informers were infiltrated into every aspect of society. In some cases, one could not even trust one’s own family. Anyone could be bribed or blackmailed into spying and informing, to curry favour from the leadership even at local level.

It was partly for that reason that, unlike his brother, he had never married. He rarely saw his brother anymore in any case, since he had been unwise enough not to cheer sufficiently loudly when a member of the local hierarchy visited, and had thus been condemned to seventeen years of corrective training, with his wife, in one of the many prisons near the capital.

However, Dr. Choi Shin had been able, because of his position, to persuade the authorities to let him look after his nephew, who would otherwise have been forced to join them during his parents’ incarceration. Choi and his nephew had always got on well together, and he both trusted and liked the boy.

By then, his nephew Choi Yong was just beginning his studies at university. Yong had decided to follow his uncle’s example, and study nuclear physics and computer science. But even at that age, Yong was suspicious that all was not as it seemed in North Korea, and that there could be a better life elsewhere. He and his uncle discussed this often, when they were sure they could not be overheard.

It was about this time that Uncle Shin was selected to make a rare visit overseas. The visit was sponsored by the United Nations as part of its efforts to return North Korea to what they called ‘normalisation’ and eventual reunification with the South after their disastrous war. It was a rare chance to see life outside the stifling confines of his own country, and he felt privileged and honoured to have been selected.

Shin was to be accompanied by two other scientists and a government official who would be responsible for all the arrangements. He would be with them at all times. He was their minder.

They were to visit America, North Korea’s sworn enemy, to inspect some of the US nuclear research facilities, like those at the Lawrence Livermore University. It was hoped they would collect information which would be of value to Pyongyang’s own efforts. At the moment, they had to rely heavily on China for support, as they did in most areas of life.

On his return, Shin discussed his visit excitedly with Yong, an eager listener. What they had seen had been of great interest, although Shin was quite sure they had been briefed only at the lowest security level and had been shown nothing in anyway regarded as secret. But they had nevertheless learnt a great deal, and had also been gratified to know that much of their own research efforts were being mirrored in the States. Their minder was equally convinced that America was trying to catch up with the superior world-leading work being carried out in his own country, and had been at pains to ensure that nothing was passed on by the scientists in his delegation that could have been of any value to their American hosts.

Dr. Choi Shin had been as much interested in exploring the American lifestyle as their nuclear research. What little he had seen had convinced him that life was better there than at home, although the government official who was escorting them had forbidden them to watch television in their hotel room, or to buy newspapers, magazines, or videos – nothing, indeed, which could possible corrupt them in any way. In the end, none of that was necessary. They were all intelligent enough to use their eyes and draw their own conclusions about the American way of life.

“The American people enjoy amazing freedom,” he explained to Yong on his return. “They are free to say and do what they like within the law, and the laws are not that strict or the punishments so severe compared with this country. They can travel freely. There is a vast amount of information available to them through newspapers, magazines, seemingly hundreds of radio and TV channels, and they have unrestricted access to the internet. There is a bewildering choice in everything they want, from food and drink, cars, houses – everything.”

“I always suspected that things were better outside this country,” said Yong, “and now you have seen it for yourself.”

“But I would not want to live there,” replied his Uncle, shaking his head. “Interesting though it was, I confess that I did not much enjoy my visit.”

“Why ever not?”

“I did not much like the people,” came the reply. “Those we met were very courteous and helpful and made us feel welcome, but others seemed noisy and brash and arrogant. I am sure not all of them are like that, but we met enough to give me that impression. And I found their life style totally confusing. Here, everything is planned for us; there, they have to make their own choices. In many ways, I tend to agree with some of the party propaganda we hear about the Americans.”

“You are comparing them with us, where we have no freedoms at all. I suppose you should expect them to be very different.”