What if, instead of leaving North Korea today, Dennis Rodman didn't make it out and was instead thrown into a prison camp by the country's erratic young dictator Kim Jong-un? And what if two brave Wire bloggers had to save him?
Rodman didn't get a chance to see Kim Jong-un on this particular trip. But he told CNN International after he landed Monday in Beijing, "I'm not worried about it. I'll see him again. I will be coming back in another week." He's there to coach a basketball game on January 8 that's being played in honor of the Supreme Leader's birthday. We sincerely wish Rodman safe travels, but this is the same Kim Jong-un who just ordered his own uncle's execution. Is it that hard to imagine a falling out between a 30-year-old playboy autocrat and a washed up NBA veteran best known for his colorful hair dye and briefly dating Madonna? Sure, it's a hypothetical, but one that interested us enough that, using a few guidelines below, we tried to come up with a plan for rescuing Rodman, drawing primarily from our experience of watching movies and making things up. Then, we checked with experts to see if our strategy makes any sense.
We learned two things. One, if you're ever imprisoned in a hostile country, do not turn to bloggers for your rescue because their plan will almost certainly fail and the bloggers will probably join you in that prison camp. Two, Dennis Rodman ought be on his best behavior in the Hermit Kingdom, since if he finds himself in prison, he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
In North Korea to teach the country's basketball team how to play, Dennis Rodman somehow falls out of favor with the country's quixotic leader Kim Jong-un and is arrested and transported to Hwaseong prison camp, Camp 16, in the mountainous northeastern corner of the country. Paddy Power, the Irish gambling site that is sponsoring Rodman's visit, decides to spare no expense in rescuing Rodman and — for inexplicable reasons — calls The Wire, asking us to lead the raid with an unlimited line of credit. But the rescue needs to happen as soon as possible, in the depths of the North Korean winter.
After we took a crack at planning our own mission, we reached out to experts to compare notes (they were not impressed by our tactics) and ask what they would do. Our warroom includes:
- Survival skills. Mykel Hawke. Star of The Travel Channel's Lost Survivors, survival instructor at SpecOps, Inc.
- Tactical operations. "Jack Quinn." Former Army Ranger and Delta Force Operator. (This is a pseudonym; he asked that his name be withheld.)
- Korean culture. Charles K. Armstrong. Professor of Korean Studies, Columbia University. Armstrong has made half a dozen trips to North Korea.
- Chinese culture. Abe Sauer. Writer and expatriate resident of China.
We call our mission: Operation Roddy Piper.
There are three phases to it. Infilitration, in which we enter North Korea and travel to the prison camp where Rodman is being held. The rescue phase involves freeing Rodman. And lastly the exfilitration and extraction phase, in which we make our escape.
Below are the final plans for each phase. You can click the gray tabs to toggle between our best guess and then read what real experts had to say. And, to any kids out there reading this: Do not try either of these rescue plans at home.
Philip: The main question is: how do we get into North Korea with the things we need to rescue Rodman. At a minimum, those "things" are ourselves, some sorts of tools, I assume, food, and so on. The country's southern border with South Korea is airtight. The northern border is porous, but leads to China or Russia. We can arrive by air or sea, but we risk being seen doing so. And, in the case of air, we risk being shot down after being detected by radar. So I think: sea landing, with material.
Elle: Orbitz won't let me book a commercial flight to Pyongyang.
Philip: You were thinking, what, we get off the plane and ask where Rodman is?
Elle: The Wikitravel page says people fly in through Beijing on Air Koryo, the North Korean airline. I think we go in as tourists.
Philip: But if we come in as tourists, we'll have a minder. How would we get to the prison camp?
Elle: Say we're staying with a North Korean, then we can walk around without a minder.
Philip: I'm not sure that's how it works. Did you read something that said Americans could come in and hang out with North Koreans without the government caring? That seems unlikely.
Elle: Breaking out is going to be the hard part. Why not make getting in smooth?
Philip: Explain what happens when we land.
Elle: We get in, we go to our safe house, we get our bearings, talk to our sources, lie low, act like tourists. Get ready for the real operation.
Philip: What is "our safe house"? It seems as though some important details are missing, and given that we are partners in this, I'd like a little more info.
Elle: Well, like yeah, we'd have to arrange all that stuff.
Philip: Oh, okay. How do we get from Pyongyang to the safe house.
Elle: Any option will require a lot of planning.
Philip: Yes, correct. Fine. So this is your final plan: We fly into Pyongyang via China and figure it out.
Elle: I just think charm and bribes will be more fun and less lethal to you and me than guns blazing from minute one.
Philip: Did I say guns blazing? I said stealth.
Elle: I didn't realize we have to list every detail of every plan right now! How does the magic stealth happen? How far can you swim in the ocean in winter at night? I'm a great ocean swimmer and I can tell you the answer for me is: not far.
Philip: "I'm a great ocean swimmer." Cool. So why don't you want to swim?
Elle: Because I know how hard it is, especially in the cold, or if the current is against you, or if you're wearing heavy stuff instead of a swimsuit. Imagine how much harder it would be with shoes, not to mention guns. The salt makes it easier to float because of the body's fat content. That's not true of metal objects like guns.
There are two primary considerations: How will you get into North Korea? And how will you bring with you the things you need? While it's not possible to buy a plane ticket from New York City to Pyongyang, it is possible to visit North Korea with a visa. But that then limits what you can bring and your ability to operate without being seen. (Western visitors require a state-sanctioned guide.)
Each of the experts with whom we spoke agreed that stealth was required for any operation to be successful. A small group can't swoop in by helicopter, shooting its way into the prison and then making an escape.
There are two ways to be stealthy, too: either by fooling the regime with fake cover stories or by never alerting the regime to your presence. Quinn, our pseudonymous special forces veteran, advocated "going in as stealthily as possible," using aliases and cover stories for some of the two dozen people he thought would be needed for the mission, and surreptitious border crossings with others. The group could include "people that are Korean that used to be soldiers" as a means of increasing the group's capabilities inside the country. His goal was to establish a "rat-tail," a sort of Underground Railroad of safehouses and secure areas that could be used to funnel people and materials into the country.
(An aside: We gave Quinn the name "Jack Quinn" because it was the name of the character played by Jean Claude Van Damme in the 1997 action movie Double Team. His co-star? Dennis Rodman.)
But Quinn's plan didn't sound right to Armstrong. "It would be very hard to hide out in North Korea," he argued, "even if you were a fluent Korean speaker. Surveillance is quite strict and anything strange would be reported to the authorities."
If the goal is to get into North Korea without being seen at all, that leaves only one method with a high probability of success: land. You can't fly or paradrop into North Korea; the country's defenses are too strong. A water landing, as Quinn noted, included a high risk of being spotted from a distance. "If the boat is compromised," he pointed out, "everyone is dead." (Of our ideas, Quinn tactfully noted that "tactics are like assholes — everyone's got them and they all stink.") If you drive into North Korea, it's much easier to avoid being seen, and you can bring almost anything you want with you.
Armstrong thought that a land entry could work. The border with China is fairly porous, and the Tumen River — which defines the jagged border at the northeastern corner of the country — is fairly shallow and narrow. (See map, below.) In the winter, it's also frozen over in sections. "People actually do sneak in and out of North Korea," Armstrong said, and the "Korean side of the border is sparsely populated for the most part."
A quick tour of Google Earth shows a number of places along the Tumen where both the Chinese and Korean sides of the river show little signs of habitation. Most are heavily forested and mountainous, but offer a way in. (Hawke, the survival expert, was stationed in Korea during his time in the armed services, which included stints in the Green Berets and as an intelligence operator. He was skeptical of sneaking in: "As soon as you get a non-Korean anywhere near the border, you'll get people talking.")
You can't bring a tractor-trailer in by crossing a shallow river, of course. But you can bring a small group of people in using all-terrain vehicles. Or, more likely, using motorbikes. Getting into North Korea through China limits the gear we can bring with us. If we were flying from Honolulu straight to remote North Korea, we could bring any number of high-tech gadgets. Taking that stuff into China first is tricker.
Sauer, the long-time resident of China, thinks motorbikes are the way to go because they can be easily purchased in China. "'Four wheeler' type ATVs would be very hard to find," he says, but "many scooter-motorcycles made in China that are extremely robust and would handle a wide range of terrain." You'd need cash to buy them, most likely, but acquiring large amounts of cash in China isn't all that hard. "[T]here are touts outside a lot of banks in areas that cater to foreigners," Sauer says, "who whisper 'change money' when you pass by. If you had a day or so, you could probably arrange to change a large sum with one of them."
That's important too because cash is the number one thing Hawke recommended we have once we get to North Korea. Armstrong, the Korea professor, notes that the country has a "very active" black market, most of it in euros or dollars. Hawke hammered this point hard: "Every time you come into contact with somebody," he recommended, "you pay your way through." And euros are a "smarter way to go," because it's better for covering your trail.
With that plan in mind — buy bikes and smuggle people and material across the river in the northeast — Hawke made a key point: it's winter in an unforgiving and largely undeveloped country. "North Korea is a pretty hungry place," Hawke noted, "and everybody who's got food has a real good eye on it." Stealing food from houses and farms you pass — "battlefield recovery," as Hawke called it — is that much harder. So what you bring — fuel, food, water, and vehicles — is what you'll have. Time and distance and weight all factor heavily into the mission. And since the goal is to keep your profile as low as possible, no roads, no fires, no stopping at a gas station (even if one existed).
The longer you're in North Korea, the more you need to bring with you at the outset and the more likely you are to be caught. It's about 80 kilometers, at the closest, most direct point, from the border to Camp 16. But that's direct. You need to go over high hills and through woods. Hawke figures three to five days in-country. Quinn, with his plan of embedding people in the country, thinks his mission would take weeks.
Here are Hawke's recommendations on what to bring:
- Food: Beef jerky, pre-cooked noodles, and Powerbar-type food. The goal is to have enough protein, carbohydrates and glucose to power through the three to five days you're in the country. No pre-packaged military-type meals, since you wouldn't want to "leave anything behind that looks like it doesn't belong there" — at least until you're on your way out of North Korea.
- Shelter: Don't expect to sit down at a campsite and enjoy a nice meal. No fires at night, unless absolutely necessary for warmth to survive. No tents, either, since they're visible from a distance. Instead, you'll be sleeping — for only 2 to 4 hours a night, just enough rest to "keep your body operational — in a sleeping bag ("high-rated, lightweight") inside what's known as a "bivy sack" ("bivy" being short for "bivouac"). Hawke suggests putting the sack in bushes or a thicket, lining it with leaves or a pad for extra insulation, and then putting the sleeping bag inside that. Remember: "Winter time in Korea?" Hawke said. "That makes your eyeballs hurt."
- Clothing: Hawke said that from a distance, you want your clothes to look like typical clothes of North Korea, somewhat limiting your ability to wear the most modern, most insulated clothes. (No North Face, for example.) Since it's critical that the clothing keep you warm during the day — "clothing is your first line of defense for shelter" — he suggested that you might also need a change of clothes even for such a short stay. "You're going to be sweating and working hard," he pointed out, meaning that your clothes will get wet.
- Water: Water is actually pretty easy. Bring some purification tablets with you and you can drink water you come across as you travel.
- First aid: Again, this stays light. Antibiotics, some pain reliever like aspirin, and immodium, so you don't lose fluids from diarrhea. You'll need a few cravat bandages and duct tape in lieu of any sort of suture kit: "You're not worried about a scar."
- Navigation: Paper map and a compass, at least at first. Using a GPS, he suggested, could give away your location.
Also, bring a lighter. "There's no need to rub two sticks together."
These are the basics just to stay alive. If all goes well, this would get us over the 80-plus kilometers between the border we cross and where Rodman is being held. When it comes to the operation itself, as you'll see, you'll want a few things more — including, potentially, weapons.
[ View our plan ]
The blue pin marks a possible entry point. Orange, Camp 16. The red point is a possible exit point.
Philip: So we are in North Korea, either with a bunch of material that we've carried into the country via a stealthy boat landing (involving a little swimming) or by magically transporting from a guarded hotel in Pyongyang. We're in the vicinity of Rodman's prison. Or, I guess — we need to figure out where he is, first?
Elle: Let's just assume that from the news we find out he's in one of the political prisons, like Camp 16.
Philip: Fine. We are in the vicinity of that camp. Now what.
Elle: Well, I googled "true life prison breaks" and found this listicle that said a guy in Greece escaped because his brother landed a helicopter in the prison yard. The guards just assumed it was an official visit from bureaucrats. This sounds like a good course of action for two bloggers such as ourselves. We get a helicopter, have it painted North Korean military colors. We pretend we're on official business for Kim... boom. Fly away. Rodman is ours.
Philip: Oooooookay. So. 1. We probably can't pass as North Korean officials. 2. We get a helicopter, how?
Elle: With our unlimited funds. That was our initial stipulation and I'm sticking with it. Perhaps we pose as Russian businessmen since we are both fair-haired. That would explain our need for a translator. Helicopter in from Russia.
Okay, maybe that wouldn't work. Maybe through China under the cover of nightfall? It's a mountainous area on the border.
Philip: Have you heard of radar.
Elle: Okay, maybe we truck in the helicopter in an 18-wheeler? Because China does trade with North Korea, plus there are smugglers for semi-secret private markets.
Philip: Are those smugglers Americans who don't speak Korean? What happens at the border? We drive up, and the North Korean guards, what, wave us through?
Elle: Yes. With bribes! Why don't you believe in capitalism, Bump? Is North Korea not a prime example of its power? No, no, we have a Korean fixer.
Philip: Oh, you're "joking."
Elle: No. I am not joking.
Philip: So here is my idea. Given that we've arrived via a boat that can carry, say, multiple people and large bags of gear: We tunnel. We'd need some intelligence on the ground to pinpoint Rodman's location, but this seems like the safest way to gain entry. Somehow I doubt the Korean prisons have tunnel detection mechanisms.
Elle: How are we going to dig a tunnel? Do you know how hard it is to dig things? You know the jokes about eight construction workers standing around watching one guy dig? That is because digging is really hard and you can't do it for eight hours straight. Especially if you're living in the woods and the ground is frozen because it is winter.
Philip: Remember how I said that we had other people with us? Those people will help. We will have whatever the best tools are for digging, maybe automated tools. Why do I have to explain how specifically we can sustain digging for hours when you get to just say, "Oh, we will drive a helicopter in, no bigs"?
Elle: It's no easier to sneak in all those people than to sneak in a helicopter on a truck at the border.
Philip: Of course it is! How is it not?
Elle: Think about the food, tools, plus like ventilation for the tunnel! Like pickaxes! This is in the mountains!
Philip: Why is that so hard? We have bags from the boat.
Elle: It's hard enough to train up to be international crimefighters, we don't have time to become John Henry, too.
Philip: Well, my other plan was to do a raid, but that requires shooting and/or military stuff that seems like it would go south pretty quickly.
Elle: I don't want to imagine us snapping necks, especially of starving teenage North Korean guards. I would prefer to be like the Wedding Crashers, but for North Korean gulags.
The camp we've chosen to be the theoretical home to an incarcerated Dennis Rodman is the largest prison camp in North Korea, according to Amnesty International, with an area of 560 square kilometers — three times the size of Washington, D.C. Armstrong, the Columbia professor, suggests a big problem: Rodman won't be there. "A high profile foreigner would not be kept in a camp," he told us, "more likely a relatively comfortable jail." When Korean War vet Merrill Newman was briefly detained in the country, he was held in a jail near Pyongyang.
Which is a good moment to remind you that this whole hypothetical exercise is predicated on the idea that Dennis Rodman, professional annoyance for nearly 30 years, could say do something to piss off North Korea. If it's a reach to presume that he could annoy Kim Jong-un enough to get thrown in jail, why not enough to get thrown into his worst gulag? This is the man who called hhimself The Worm and dined out for years on an anecdote about trying and failing to get Madonna pregnant. So, we're going to Camp 16.
Quinn's advice was to have a three-pronged strategy. The first is to create distractions in the region, to distract focus from the camp itself. The second is to create distractions in the camp. And, third, to bribe, bribe, bribe.
The first point is simple enough, though it does suggest that you have more people and more material than the bare-bones suggestion Hawke put forward. By setting explosive charges on key infrastructural points — like dams or, where they exist, power lines — you can draw military and police attention away from Camp 16. There are a lot of tricky aspects to this plan, of course. Where do you get explosives if you're coming in from China, for example? But it's a good reminder that everything you can do to reduce the amount of opposition you face is worth doing.
The operation itself depends on similar distractions in the camp. Quinn had a clever way of achieving this. By observing the camp in the days leading up to the rescue effort, we could learn patterns of movement and, perhaps more importantly, the proper triggers for guard deployment. Having a Korean speaker in the party would allow the group, over time, to figure out how to give commands such as "All guards report to location X immediately" over the radio used within the facility.
While it may be hard to buy or smuggle electronics into China (and then North Korea), Quinn thought that a jamming device of some sort would make the entire operation easier. At the moment that you want to gain access, give a command ordering guards away from the area where Rodman is being held and then jam their ability to communicate further. "What I'm trying to do," Quinn said, is "isolate that objective from communicating any kind of reaction." By that point, of course, you'll have given yourself away, but once Rodman goes missing, that's pretty much out the window anyway. And if the response team can't communicate with each other to stop your exit, you have a huge advantage. "You really don't want it to go to bullets," Quinn said, perhaps understating things.
How do you figure out where Rodman is being kept? With those euros you brought. Armstrong had a colleague that at one point found herself near one of North Korea's prison camps. The entire regional economy was involved in the camp, perhaps not a surprise given the scale of the facility. This means, then, that people are moving in and out of the facility — in a place where there's a robust black market. While you'd still want to minimize contact with the population (here's where Quinn's Korean veterans would be helpful), you might be able to at least figure out where he's being held.
If you can, Quinn suggests going a step further. "Find the highest guy that's available that's corruptible," he suggested, and bribe him with anything you've got. "Lets say you could get the camp commander" on your side. He can give the order to assemble away from Rodman without your having to do a thing. "Maybe," Quinn figured, "you have the keys to the camp" and you just rescue Rodman without any conflict at all. Would a commander flip? Perhaps — and he might be more likely to if you offered to include him and his family in your escape from North Korea.
Actually getting in probably isn't that difficult; after all, prisons are designed to prevent escape, not entry. In the now-famous story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in and escaped Camp 14, near Pyongyang, he escaped by getting past an electrified fence near some woods. The sprawling boundaries of Camp 16 suggest that finding a weak point to get inside wouldn't be too difficult.
Once inside, though, problems multiply. There are any number of internal guard facilities. The image at right, from an Amnesty International report, shows a guard tower (top left) overlooking a farming facility within Camp 16. Satellite images from Camp 15 (between 14 and 16, predictably), show guard towers lining interior roads. You'd also need to give up the motorbikes that got you to the camp, meaning you'd be left to progress through the (almost certainly patrolled) area on foot. It's no less forgiving than the route in. Much of the camp is situated in the valleys under forested hills. As Hawke noted, you most likely won't have access to night vision goggles (try bringing those into China). So this is daytime movement, on foot — both in and out, with Rodman, who'd need his own gear once you picked him up. Bring some size 20 boots.
Any attempt to infiltrate the camp would need a great deal of intelligence and a particularly robust means of distracting attention. Or: weapons. Hawke pointed out that this need not only mean firearms. Knives and other weapons might be easier to get in China and bring into the country — and have the added benefit of being quiet. Some weapon, even if not used to effect Rodman's escape, is a must. If the small team of rescuers encounters one armed guard, you need some option to help you get away.
There's no question that the plan, at large, is both optimistic and underinformed. Were we developing a real plan, we'd want a much more robust assessment of what is possible. "This is why they call special forces guys deep planners," Hawke said, continuing:
We'll go into isolation, and we'll spend a month not talking to anyone, not reading anything, nothing but eat-sleep-breathe-plan the mission. In every possible variation. We'll tell you how deep every river is, what the soil gradiant of it is, what the speed of it is — because if this goes wrong and we have to go this way, what do we ned to get it done.
[ View our plan ]
EXFILTRATION AND ESCAPE
Philip: So now, we've gotten Rodman (somehow) and we are making our escape. My theory: Get back to the coast, get in a boat, and go to Japan.
Elle: OK here, I think we're closer in agreement. Boat to Japan seems like the best option. Of course, I would prefer to helicopter to the boat, you, me, Dennis, our fixer, plus any poor guards we've bribed along the way.
Philip: Wait, wait, wait. OK. First, we cannot fly a helicopter around offshore.
Elle: Because of inclement weather?
Philip: North Korea certainly has air defense systems. And especially if we've just stolen Rodman, they'll be looking for us. Also: We're bringing guards with us now? How on Earth does that make sense?
Elle: I just feel sorry for the poor starving teenagers! They have no food!
Philip: I don't think they're all teenagers.
Elle: We can escape along mountainous backwoods to the coast near the border with Russia.
Philip: Great. Agreed. Then get to a small boat we stashed when we arrived, and then get to a contracted boat out in international waters.
Elle: It's too hard to get back over the border and take the bus to Laos and then Thailand.
Philip: Uh, yes. Sneaking Dennis Rodman through China seems like a bad idea.
Elle: One escape narrative I read said you could take the bus to Mongolia, but you have to cross the Gobi desert. But Mongolia would be sympathetic.
Philip: Why would that be better than Japan?
Elle: Well thats where our cover story as Russian businessmen comes in. We are Russian businessmen and we would like to do business!
Philip: Where is Dennis during this?
Elle: We have brought along this aging basketball star who is not Dennis Rodman, but another basketball star entirely. We have shaved off his green hair to help with the story.
Philip: So we also need to sneak in a razor.
North Korea is itself a large prison — easy to break into, trickier to get out of. So that escape needs to be as smooth and rapid as possible.
Let's start from the end here. Paddy Power, in their munificence, has paid for there to be some sort of vessel waiting in the international waters off the coast of northeastern North Korea. That's a distance of 12 nautical miles from the North Korean coast, or, if we want to play it safe — which we do — about 24 nautical miles, some 44 kilometers, past the "contiguous zone" of North Korean control. Put a Japanese boat in that vicinity (or further still!) ready to rendevous with our escaping team.
That team, ideally, will be arriving on a North Korean fishing boat — or some other similar vessel. This is not trivial, but solves a number of problems at once. The waters around North Korea are heavily patrolled; the country is still in an active state of war with its southern neighbor, of course. Stashing a boat near the shore is tricky for the same reason that doing an amphibious landing was: it's hard to get in undetected. The team could bring with it an inflatable craft of some kind, but that 1) adds weight and bulk and 2) would be more dependent on the weather complying. Bribing a fisherman, perhaps with the promise of helping him escape the country entirely, would allow more flexibility in escape.
It also means doing some scouting before the team arrives on the coast. From Camp 16 to the coast is, at a minimum, 30 to 35 kilometers away. The party, now with Rodman in tow and the authorities aware of its presence, needs to make its way at least that far to as private a beach as possible to rendezvous with the fishing vessel. Sending someone to set that up in advance is essential. You don't want to wait for days on end, food supplies dwindling and the authorities searching outward from Camp 16, as you try and find a fisherman willing to make such a substantial commitment.
Rodman is why you can't go out the same way you came in. While North Koreans who've escaped the country have made their way by train or bus to Laos, Vietnam, or Mongolia, a group of Americans — including a celebrity whose escape from prison will certainly have been noticed — can't simply ride through China to freedom.
Even Japan might be wary of welcoming a group that just succesfully executed this mission in North Korea. In our conservations with him, Quinn pointed out one additional consideration for us in undertaking this mission: We're almost certainly violating international law, particularly if you exchange gunfire with North Korean authorities. "Could you really get someone to [volunteer] knowing they could never be an American citizen again once they fired the first bullet?," Quinn asked. You'd need "an island in the Caribbean" or "a lot of billionaire friends" in order to assure you had somewhere to go once you escaped with Rodman. And maybe a little positive press. "I want Fox News and CNN both saying this guy [who completed the mission] is the greatest guy on Earth," Quinn laughed, in the hopes that the U.S. (and any other country's) government thought that two wrongs added up to a right.
Because this is essentially an act of terrorism, we pointed out — explosions and extracting political prisoners and undermining the government. "Yes," Quinn replied, "in a good way."
And that's Operation Roddy Piper. The best thinking of two bloggers, two military veterans, a Columbia professor, and a writer who lives in China. Odds of success: over eight percent, probably. You're in good hands, Dennis.
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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.