When the leader of North Korea is catastrophically injured, his incapacitation inadvertently triggers a “dead-man’s switch,” activating an army of sleeper agents in South Korea and precipitating a struggle for succession.
Jack Ryan, Jr. is in Seoul to interview a potential addition to the Campus. But his benign trip takes a deadly turn when a wave of violence perpetrated by North Korean operatives grips South Korea’s capital. A mysterious voice from North Korea offers Jack a way to stop the peninsula’s rush to war, but her price may be more than he can afford to pay.
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About the Author
Don Bentley spent a decade as an Army Apache helicopter pilot, and while deployed in Afghanistan was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal with "V" device for valor. Following his time in the military, Bentley worked as an FBI special agent focusing on foreign intelligence and counterintelligence and was a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team member.
Read an Excerpt
Seoul, South Korea
Jack Ryan, Jr., considered himself a man of culture. Even so, he'd never before experienced a flash mob. At least he thought it was a flash mob. This was South Korea. If there was anything Jack had learned in the handful of hours he'd been on Korean soil, it was that things here were a bit . . . different.
And that included flash mobs.
One moment Jack had been contemplating the towering stone statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, the next he was body-to-body with a plaza full of chanting Koreans. Though the early-afternoon sun had yet to burn through a gray overcast sky, and scattered puddles of oily water from the morning's rain still coated the pedestrian area's stone walkways, the iffy weather did little to deter the growing crowd. People poured into Gwanghwamun Plaza from adjacent streets, spilling past the office buildings lining the west and east sides of the plaza and threading around the concrete barriers and stone planters designed to keep frisky Korean drivers at bay.
Jack had taken Domingo "Ding" Chavez's advice. Rather than renting a car, Jack had grabbed a cab at the airport. Once again his mentor and coworker had provided Jack with safe counsel. While he wasn't exactly a stranger to driving overseas, as near as Jack could tell, Korean traffic signs were merely suggestions. In fact, none of the Western driving norms Jack was accustomed to seemed to apply. After he and the cabbie experienced two near misses before even leaving the airport proper, Jack had decided that feigning sleep and reciting the Rosary was the best way to allow his jet-lagged mind to cope with the sudden onslaught of stimuli. Lisanne Robertson had followed suit, cradling her head against Jack's shoulder and closing her eyes. With the feel of her thick, dark hair against his cheek and the smell of her olive-toned skin just inches away, the traffic hadn't seemed quite so horrible.
Or maybe Jack had just come to the realization that dying with a beautiful woman's head on his shoulder wasn't such a bad way to go. In any case, the avalanche of bodies now pouring into the plaza made the taxi ride's madness seem like a Sunday drive.
At six-foot-two, Jack had no problem seeing over the crowd, but he was less successful in locating an avenue of escape. The people really were coming from everywhere, and the first human wave had washed up against the statue and was now pooling in swirling eddies. Jack was a big man even by American standards. His two-hundred-twenty-pound athletic frame usually ensured that bystanders kept their distance.
Not in South Korea.
Like in many Asian countries, Koreans didn't subscribe to the Western idea of personal space. Though to be fair, flash mobs by nature were all about crowding as many people into a confined space as possible. Assuming of course that this gathering actually was a flash mob. Jack was not the hippest guy when it came to social media, but the videos he'd seen tended to feature impromptu concerts or dancing, not chanting people holding signs. Which meant this probably wasn't a flash mob at all. Koreans had a long history of protesting government abuses, both real and perceived, and this tradition far predated Instagram or TikTok.
Using the lifelike rendering of Admiral Yi Sun-sin as a reference point, Jack pressed through the crowd until he arrived at the statue's elliptical-shaped base. Mounting the two steps leading up to a viewing platform of sorts, Jack assessed the situation from his newly found observation post.
The plaza was oriented north-to-south, with the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin on the very southern tip, surrounded by an array of decorative fountains and specially designed stones commemorating the admiral's victory over a Japanese fleet back in the 1500s. A second statue sat to the north of the admiral, this one a golden rendering of King Sejong the Great seated on his throne. Beyond the throne, a long stretch of closely cropped grass pointed to a traditional temple-style building framed by a pastoral set of mountainous foothills, an unexpected sight in the center of a city of more than nine million people.
But there was nothing pastoral about the press of bodies surging into the plaza or the ranks of riot police taking up station between the demonstrators and the office buildings. For the first time since he'd set off on his solo sightseeing trip, Jack was glad that Lisanne was back at the hotel. She'd elected to crash in her room for a short nap before dinner.
Those two words carried with them a world of significance.
Pushing away his romantic quandary for the moment, Jack focused his sluggish brain on the task at hand. While he was all for experiencing as much of South Korea as possible during his short trip, participating in a riot wasn't on his list. He was wearing a hat to hide his dark hair and sunglasses to conceal his blue eyes, but Jack was under no illusions that he somehow blended into the crowd. Between his height and girth, he stuck out like a sore thumb, and if there was one place where blending in mattered, it was in a rambunctious crowd, especially one overseen by riot policemen looking for an excuse to make an example out of someone.
While his potential escape route to the south was clearly untenable, the north looked more promising. Much like the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this area of Seoul was packed full of cultural icons, museums, and the like. In fact, the Blue House, the Korean version of the White House, was only a couple kilometers to the north. It stood to reason that security measures would become progressively more restrictive in that direction of travel.
Jack figured this meant that if the crowd became unruly, the demonstrators would confine their activities to this section of the plaza rather than risk the wrath of the Presidential Security Service, whose security cordon would tighten the closer one came to the president's residence. Besides, if things truly got out of hand, Jack could always seek refuge at the U.S. embassy conveniently located on the eastern side of the plaza. Though they might tolerate a bit of social disobedience directed at their own government, the South Korean National Police Agency would take a dim view toward anyone targeting a foreign embassy.
His decision made, Jack moved north using the giant golden statue as his guide. As he pushed through the crowd, he was careful not to let the riptide of bodies drag him down the steps to his right. The stairs led to a lower tier and the recessed entrance of a museum dedicated to Admiral Yi Sun-sin. The lower landing's high walls to the east and steps to the west were channelizing terrain, and Jack instinctively knew to avoid it.
These were not the thoughts of an average tourist.
Very little about Jack was average.
As Jack edged through the bystanders, he sensed the crowd's energy changing. The gathering had begun with an orderly vibe. Though the plaza's pedestrian space was limited, the press of bodies had felt benign, more like the spectators lining the corner of Broadway and 34th Street for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade than the chaos of a riot. In a way he couldn't really explain, Jack would have almost termed the mass of people polite.
But not anymore.
Now a sense of menace permeated the air like the smell of ozone after a lightning strike. Jack would be hard-pressed to articulate what exactly had changed, but he believed what his sixth sense was communicating all the same. The chants sounded angrier, people's expressions looked harsher, and the shoving and pushing were more pronounced.
Something was about to happen.
Jack had no intentions of being close by when it did.
A scream echoed to his right.
Jack looked toward the sound, watching as several bodies tumbled down the recessed steps, like boulders eroded by a flash flood. Two of the bodies, a portly middle-aged man and a twenty-something hipster, both pushed themselves to their feet. The third, a teenage girl, lay where she'd sprawled, clutching her ankle. For a moment, the mass of humanity parted, and the girl's fearful eyes found Jack's. Then a cloud of tear gas drifted skyward from the row of riot police lining the street to the west.
The crowd convulsed as protesters swarmed.
The stricken teenager vanished.
Cursing, Jack grabbed the metal railing and vaulted into the makeshift mosh pit. Like a stone splashing into a pond, Jack's bulk sent ripples through the crowd. He capitalized on the disruption, charting a path through the humanity with the subtlety of an icebreaker's bow. In four quick strides, Jack smashed his way to the still-screaming girl, scooping her up with powerful arms and dislodging two of the people trampling her in the process. With a drowning swimmer's desperation, the girl wrapped her arms around Jack's thick neck, babbling in Korean between tear-filled hiccups.
"It's okay," Jack said, cradling the teenager to his chest. "I've got you."
While Jack did in fact have the girl, the situation was a long way from okay.
As Jack had feared, the recessed area leading to the museum had become a choke point. People were fleeing the lurking tear-gas clouds spiraling in from the west with none of the discipline and consideration for others the demonstrators had initially displayed. As Jack watched, a man was crushed against the railing above him, crying out in pain. The demonstrator shoved back against the encroaching bodies, freeing himself, but Jack knew that the next person wouldn't be so lucky.
Though humans liked to think of themselves as enlightened beings, the primal animal lurking beneath the veneer of civilization was closer to the surface than most people realized. When a fight-or-flight situation arose, the average Homo sapiens didn't react all that much differently than a stampeding bovine. To make matters worse, the ramp sloping from the upper plaza to the museum's entrance was acting like a funnel, channeling the surging crowd into a whirlpool of swirling bodies. Turning behind him, Jack looked toward the museum's entrance just in time to see a protective metal accordion drop over the glass doors, sealing the antiquities in and the crowd out.
No help that way.
The girl murmured something Jack could neither hear nor comprehend. When he didn't respond, she said it again, this time pointing. Following her outstretched index finger, Jack understood.
The panicking crowd made escape up the stairs to the west or the sloping ramp to the north impossible. Likewise, with the entrance to the museum barricaded, evading to the south was out. But perhaps Jack needed to think three-dimensionally. The eastern wall was made of smooth cinder block, unclimbable to anyone not part spider. But the top of the barrier was lined with metal railings, presumably to keep street-level pedestrians from accidentally falling into the recessed area.
That was a possibility.
Grunting, Jack push-pressed the girl over his head toward the tubular railings, shoulders quivering with the effort. The teenager stretched for the barricade, her fingertips just brushing the cylindrical railing.
A series of distant screams brought another avalanche of bodies tumbling into the already confined space. Jack cradled the girl against his chest an instant before the surge smashed him against the cinder-block wall. He took most of the impact across his back and shoulders, but the collision whiplashed his head into the masonry, causing him to briefly see stars. Somehow Jack kept his footing, but the bodies compressed him against the wall, making it difficult to breathe. The girl squirmed in his arms, shrieking as an overweight Korean man used her damaged ankle as leverage to pull himself upright.
This had to end.
Turning so that he faced south, Jack backpedaled, forcing his way up the ramp. People groaned and cried out to either side, but Jack no longer had the luxury of caring. The compounded force of thousands of bodies was just too strong. Sooner or later, the girl would be ripped from his arms and trampled to death.
Jack wasn't going to let that happen.
The first several yards were relatively easy going, but Jack's good fortune quickly ended. Like a spring compressed to its limits, Jack's progress was abruptly halted by a wall of unyielding human flesh.
He wasn't going any farther.
Looking up, Jack eyed the railing, judging distances. By shouldering his way up the ramp, he'd lessened the height to the metal barrier. Not as much as he'd have liked, but maybe enough. Transferring his grip, Jack shoulder-pressed the girl upward. This time she got her fingers around the bar, but the smooth metal slid from her grasp.
His shoulders and arms quaking, Jack lowered the teenager back to his chest.
He had to lift her higher.
Another round of screams echoed from the west, but Jack didn't bother to look. He already knew there wasn't enough room for the coming wave of people. Either he was lifting the girl free or they'd both die in this hellhole. Jack crouched and then exploded upward, driving from his heels. Rather than trying to just lift the girl, this time Jack hurled her into the air like he was squat-thrusting an Olympic bar piled with weights.
The teenager rocketed upward with a shriek.
The apogee of the girl's flight brought her even with the top railing, but her flailing arms missed the silvery metal completely. Jack cursed even as he prepared to catch her deadweight, but the girl surprised him. With a move that might have been equal parts skill or desperation, she snagged the bottom section of the rail, wrapping both of her thin arms around it. The teenager didn't look like she had the strength to haul herself the rest of the way over the railing and onto the street, but she was safe.
Seeing the girl's leg dangling invitingly down the cinder-block wall, a man several people down from Jack grabbed hold as if to pull himself out of the churning pit. Or at least Jack assumed that's what the Korean was trying to do. Jack's Korean was extremely limited, so he persuaded the man of the inadequacies of this plan using a more universal language.
Leaning over the swirling mass, Jack struck the man once at the base of the neck with his closed fist.
Once was enough.
The man crumpled soundlessly, but the damage to the teenager was already done. The Korean's weight had yanked the girl off her somewhat secure perch. Now she was hanging the length of the wall, her grip on the railing slipping.
Figuring that turnabout was fair play, Jack planted a boot on the fallen man's back and vaulted upward. He too snagged the lowest section of railing, but unlike the girl, Jack had the use of both legs. Grunting, he turned perpendicular to the wall, placing his feet flat against the cinder block. Then he pushed off the rough surface, trading grips for a crossbeam slightly higher than the one he'd previously held. This gave him enough room to loop his leg over the lower railing, winching himself up and over the concrete lip.