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Long Road Home

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-07-01
  • Publisher: Columbia Univ Pr

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Kim Yong shares his harrowing account of life in a labor camp& -a singularly despairing form of torture carried out by the secret state. Although it is known that gulags exist in North Korea, little information is available about their organization and conduct, for prisoners rarely escape both incarceration and the country alive. Long Road Homeshares the remarkable story of one such survivor, a former military official who spent six years in a gulag and experienced firsthand the brutality of an unconscionable regime.As a lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army, Kim Yong enjoyed unprecedented privilege in a society that closely monitored its citizens. He owned an imported car and drove it freely throughout the country. He also encountered corruption at all levels, whether among party officials or Japanese trade partners, and took note of the illicit benefits that were awarded to some and cruelly denied to others.When accusations of treason stripped Kim Yong of his position, the loose distinction between those who prosper and those who suffer under Kim Jong-il became painfully clear. Kim Yong was thrown into a world of violence and terror, condemned to camp No. 14 in Hamkyeong province, North Korea's most notorious labor camp. As he worked a constant shift 2,400 feet underground, daylight became Kim's new luxury; as the months wore on, he became intimately acquainted with political prisoners, subhuman camp guards, and an apocalyptic famine that killed millions.After years of meticulous planning, and with the help of old friends, Kim escaped and came to the United States via China, Mongolia, and South Korea. Presented here for the first time in its entirety, his story not only testifies to the atrocities being committed behind North Korea's wall of silence, but it also illuminates the daily struggle to maintain dignity and integrity in the face of unbelievable odds. Like the work of Solzhenitsyn, this rare portrait tells a story of resilience as it reveals the dark forms of oppression, torture, and ideological terror at work in our world today.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Author's Notep. xiii
Introduction by Kim Suk-Youngp. 1
Coming of Agep. 19
Living for the Great Leaderp. 35
Downfall of a Model Citizenp. 61
In the Mouth of Deathp. 79
Escapep. 105
Across the Continentp. 127
Afterword Unfinished Storyp. 157
Notesp. 165
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter 4: In the Mouth of Death

Camp No. 14

In North Korea, everyone knows that a labor camp is a place where life is suspended. One does not live there, one slowly dies there. I was simply another dead soul in Camp No. 14.

At 5:00 a.m. everyone was awakened. By 6:00 a.m. the prisoners had finished their meager breakfast and marched toward the workplace. Since the mine shafts were hidden in deep valleys, nobody could see the sun light. At 7:00 we were already busy at work. Between 12:30 and 1:00 p.m., we had a quick lunch underground in the mine shaft. In order to go to the toilet, the prisoners had to wait to form groups because there was little light and they had to share one bulb to move around. One person had to carry the lamp and lead the way. Then we came out of the shaft around 11:30 p.m. and ate supper outside in darkness. According to the rules, the work was supposed to end by 8:00 p.m., or by 9:00 p.m. at the latest. However, no guard bothered to enforce this. The only real rules in Camp No. 14 were the guards' decisions. After work, we marched back to our barracks and stayed up another hour for political struggle consisting of mutual and self criticism. At 1:00 a.m., three hours later than the camp regulations, everyone went to sleep. Before my arrest, I used to sleep eight hours a night, on the average. At the camp, that was cut in half.

Even by notoriously subhuman North Korean camp standards, No. 14 was the worst of them all. To my knowledge, no human being had escaped it alive. Prisoners were beyond the point of feeling hungry, so they felt constantly delirious. But what was really killing us was psychological and emotional torture. No family members were allowed to stay together. Upon arrival at the camp, husbands and wives were separated. Children were allowed to stay with their mother until they turned twelve; then they were segregated according to sex and kept in separate barracks. Once families were separated, there was no way of knowing whether other members were dead or alive. The only chance they might have to see each other was during the public executions when all prisoners were gathered in the courtyard. Other prisoners told me that the conditions in Camp No. 14 were so ghastly that in 1990, about three years before my ar­rival, the inmates had rebelled, killing half a dozen guards. In retaliation, jailors crammed 1,500 prisoners into an empty mine shaft and massacred them with multiple explosives. After this, the guards became even more iron-fisted, but at the same time, public executions decreased in number, replaced by secret murders. When the guards came and took away some prisoners, experienced ones knew that it might be the last time they saw those fellows. Often they did not return, and that meant that they were no longer in this hell with us.

Sixty people slept in our room, which was about 10 by 6 yards and was lit by only a couple of light bulbs. There was no furniture in the room. Even if there had been books, I doubt anyone would have had the strength to read them. When the prisoners returned from work, they simply wished they were dead. At 1:00 a.m., the guards would count the prisoners and lock them in. I can still vividly hear the squeaky sound of the rusty lock behind the closed doors. When that metallic scratching signaled the end of the day, my heart bled as if the metal lock had penetrated straight into my body. As soon as the guards closed the door, the prisoners fell to the ground and immediately went to sleep. Since there were way too many people crammed into one room, one had to lie down as fast as possible in order to secure floor space. Everyone breathed heavily, as their lungs were filled with coal dust and ash. We slept on the cement floor without any bedding, but since we were in a mining camp, there was enough coal to burn all year round, so heating was not a big problem even in midwinter. However, in the summertime, the cool cement floor was unbearably hard on the back. Prisoners were supposed to stand guard in turns and the transfer of duty to a new vigil took place every hour. It was really impossible to have a minute of privacy in Camp No. 14. In the room there was an indoor toilet made of a large metal bucket. For the first three months, I slept right next to that toilet, as did every newcomer according to the rules among prisoners. It was never completely dark after the doors were locked, as the light bulbs shone dimly. However, there were times when some prisoners slightly missed the mark and splashed shit on my hair and face.

The outdoor toilet was made of hopsacks filled with sand and piled up on top of each other. The prisoners squatted on top of the piled-up sacks. There was no such thing as toilet paper. Everyone knew how to wipe themselves with a little stick. Some privileged people who worked in the kitchens or the pigsty had the luxury of using corn silk or leaves they had collected as toilet paper. Since the mining prisoners lacked exposure to the sun necessary for their bodies to make vitamins, their skin was always dripping pus. There was no mirror in No. 14, so there was no way of seeing one's own physical decline, but by looking at the ghastly faces of other prisoners, I could picture what kind of half-beast half-ghost I had turned into. If there had been mirrors for everyone to see their faces, that horrific sight would have been enough to drive one mad. To add an extra touch to our subhuman appearance, everyone's hair and beard were cropped carelessly by other prisoners when the guards let us use dull scissors once a month. No razor blades were handed out in order to prevent suicide and accidents. Life at Camp No. 14 could hardly be called a human existence. Everyone was serving a lifetime sentence and immediate death seemed like an enormous blessing.

In the beginning I did not speak and tried not to hear anybody else's words or take part in conversation. I had no curiosity about anything. For a month I did not talk to anyone, even though some approached and asked where I'd worked before ending up there. Despite my efforts to stay out of trouble, I almost got raped one night during sleeping hours. Other prisoners, including the vigilant, were in their deadly sleep. Even if they were awake, they did not have the strength to bother trying to interfere. The aggressor had been especially kind to me for a couple of days lead­ing up to the attempted assault. He used an honorific form when talking to me and followed me everywhere I went. From the very beginning, I could sense that he was a snitcher. My experience at the National Security Agency told me so, as did my experience at the orphanage. Having barely escaped the rape by pushing him away with what little strength I had, the next day I beat him hard in the mine shaft when others were not watching. Even though I was exhausted with daily labor and poor diet, I was relatively fresh and could easily knock out any other prisoners. In response, the guards severely beat me in public for touching their collaborator. As a matter of fact, one prisoner out of three worked for the guards, observing and informing on their fellow inmates. Promises of easier work and scraps of food motivated snitching.

From 1993 to 1999, I worked in mine shafts 2,400 feet below ground. It was so stifling and sultry down there that even in the middle of severe winter, the prisoners wore only underwear, and it was difficult to breathe. Every day, prisoners in my work unit would descend to collect coal along a tiny tunnel. There were no elevators; we went down in a small round metal container used to transport coal. When it was filled, another work unit would lift the container up and empty it into a train car. In the beginning, I was out of sync with the other workers in my unit, who moved like parts of the same machinery. Enfeebled as they were due to perpetual hunger, they found ways to coordinate their movement. I could not understand how they could carry on, eating so little and sleeping so little, but it seemed that everyone who had been around long enough had internalized the slow rhythm of prolonged labor. I certainly wasn't used to that kind of work, and nobody had shown me how to dig a mine or load a container. I was always getting in someone's way, and because of that the trailers would be lined up waiting for my portion of coal to be poured in before they could move out of the shaft. I was constantly beaten for tardiness by the merciless guards. One day in the first month after I arrived, I interrupted others as usual. Immediately a security guard showed up. Like all the other guards, he was accompanied by two soldiers with rifles.

"Fucking traitor, it's you again, you delay everyone's work! A filthy bastard plotting sabotage, huh?" As soon as he was done with verbal abuse, he smacked my head with the butt of a gun and I lost consciousness immediately. When I woke up, the head of our work unit was putting bandages on my head. As punishment, the guards reduced the portion of my meal by half for two days. A normal portion was not even a handful of boiled corn kernels and wheat, which was already so insufficient that prisoners who ate only the rationed food died of hunger. So when it was reduced to half, I could easily count the grains of boiled wheat and corn kernels. The head of our work unit, a kind elderly man, voluntarily shared his portion with me for two days and kept telling me, "Please eat and don't die, you have to eat to survive."

I was simply speechless. Despite his kind words, I spent the next month and a half contemplating how to end this miserable existence. I decided to commit suicide. It had been two and a half months since I had arrived at No. 14. The thought of dying was overwhelming, but I hoped everything would end like a bad dream and finally I wouldn't have to start another day like this, worried about mine collapse and sudden kicks in the head. The following day, all I could think of was how to carry out my plan. Coming up with a way to do it wasn't as easy as making up my mind to commit suicide. But by the end of the day, I had an idea. After work, when the miners ascended to the surface in the metal containers, I carried out my plan. Each container was pulled up by sets of wires that were connected by safety pins. As I reached about 2,000 feet above the mining ground, I pulled out a pin from a wire. I only heard a sharp breeze cutting my ears and then lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was lying in a pool of blood in the stream that flowed at the very bottom of the shaft. The head of our work unit had once again wrapped my head with a piece of cloth. His arms were supporting my head. The kind man was looking down at me with teary eyes.

"It's a miracle that you even opened your eyes. I thought you were surely not with us anymore." Endless tears kept rolling over his bony cheeks and fell onto my face. My vision was blurry.

Even in my delirious state, I felt utter disappointment more than deadly pain. How was I still alive to continue on in this hellish place after falling straight down to 2,000 feet below ground? That plunge should have killed me, but apparently, the speed diminished as the container hit the walls a few times, making circles while it descended. Moreover, the container flipped and I was tossed out into the stream, which minimized the injury. When I woke up, I regretted that I could not find a better way to really put an end to this indescribable torment.

There was simply no way of escaping Camp No. 14. It was located in a valley surrounded by high mountains. At rare times when prisoners had a chance to see the sky in the daytime, they saw hundreds of crows circling over the valley. They would flock together and cry out, "kaw, kaw." In Korean tradition, crows are not auspicious birds but ominous symbols. But the prisoners liked the crows' cry, since it sounded like "ga, ga," which means "go, go" in Korean. It seemed as if these birds pitied us for being in captivity and wanted us to be free. I still feel the same sensation of despair when I hear the crows cry.

Dear crows, flying high and free, Do not pity us slaving away to death.Even though our bodies are in bondageOur spirit is still alive.Already thirty-five years passed at this camp,With time my tears flow like a river.

The prisoners started to sing this song, composed by an anonymous predecessor, when they were brought out to work on a road expansion project. Road construction work was much better than mining because at least we could breathe fresh air. But these types of special projects were rare and didn't last long. While I was working on the road, I encountered two Caucasian prisoners who looked like they were in their late sixties or seventies. They were just like the Korean prisoners—leathery skin and bones. The only difference was that their noses were bigger and their eyes were colored. I saw them from two or three yards away. One of them had a totally bent back. I couldn't figure out why they were there, but they might have been prisoners in the Korean War and have spent a long time in the camp. During the special road expansion project, I also had a chance to see women for the first time since I had been arrested. They were as skinny as chopsticks and had absolutely no breasts. But among the crowd there were some women in better condition. They must have been working at the pigsty and stealing animal feed or working in the kitchen. Or they might have been receiving food scraps from the guards for snitching. There was simply no way for me to know.

As soon as the construction ended, large military trucks started to come in and out of the medical facilities on the other side of the hill using the newly expanded road. The prisoners believed that live prisoners were used for medical experimentation. Crows would flock over the hill and cry, flying in circles over the suspected medical laboratory. All the large military trucks, with hatches covering their backs, came in and out at night. To my eyes trained in foreign trade, it looked like they were carrying freezers in the back. But there was no way for me to verify what the trucks were transporting, or whether live human bodies were really being used for experiments. The prisoners assumed so because there were regular medical checkups, after which the relatively healthy ones were taken away. They never came back. It was also common knowledge that the guards who worked at the medical facility often had retarded children with birth defects. Even the toughest guards avoided Camp No. 14 for reasons like this, and the ones who were sent there were the most merciless.

In addition to enduring backbreaking labor, prisoners were supposed to submit written criticisms of other prisoners four times a week and self-criticisms twice a week. This was done during the daily study session at night, when everyone was in complete delirium, fading away into sleep. At times, criticism would take the form of a public presentation. Only on Sundays were we free from this ritual, due to the rotation of security guards. There was really nothing to confess, but we all had to come up with something in order to avoid severe punishment. Writing self-criticism was hard labor of the mind. Some prisoners used the occasion to receive more food. When they submitted particularly important informa­tion about society, the guards offered them a full bowl of corn. Everyone was so hungry, but some weaker ones submitted false self-accusations to get an immediate reprieve from unbearable hunger, even though they knew they would soon be punished for the confessed imaginary wrong­doings. Another psychological punishment was the complete absence of any kind of media -- newspapers, TV, radio, there was nothing at Camp No. 14. The separation from the rest of the world was unbearable. On rare occasions when the authorities wanted to reward the prisoners, they played popular songs, such as "Arirang" and "Moranbong," from loud­speakers. That was the most festive thing prisoners were treated to.

There were threats and dangers everywhere, but our worst enemy was hunger. Eating enough to survive was a war in itself, since each meal con­sisted of watery soup and a handful of boiled corn kernels and wheat. It was impossible to live on that portion, not to mention work twelve to fourteen hours a day in a coal mine. Prisoners died of malnutrition all the time. Miners were so weak that it took them an hour to do the work that would have taken a normal person ten minutes. The hunger was so severe that even rats disappeared almost completely from the camp. The rats were fairly big, and were regarded as a special treat and a source of protein for the lucky ones who caught them. The guards prohibited this, because it was believed that rats were good at predicting mine shaft collapses. One day, I spotted a huge rat while carrying lumber to support the ceiling of the shaft. I knocked it out with a stone and ate it immediately from head to tail, raw, without skinning it. The meat tasted like honey. On another lucky day, I picked up a zucchini on the road near the barracks. A farmer supplying produce for the guards might have dropped it from his cart. I was never fond of zucchini before my imprisonment, but that raw one was so delicious.

One evening I saw that a worker in our unit had found a small snake in the mining area, stoned it, and wanted to eat it. But he was so weak that he could not hold the snake tightly when he put its tail in his mouth. Not quite dead, the snake escaped his hands and bit him, but he was still eating the other end. The other prisoners jumped to grab parts of the snake and gorged on them. The man died two days later. In the camp area there was farmland irrigated by oxen, which were cared for by outside contract laborers. When they passed by the camp on the ox carts, the famished prisoners would go after the animal dung to dig out undigested corn kernels. Anything that moved was eaten—grasshoppers, lice... anything and everything in order to survive. On one lucky day a rabbit got lost and came into the shaft. Everyone went crazy. We knocked its head with a stone and ate the whole thing raw. Had the guards known about it, we would have been severely punished. But everyone was insanely hungry all the time. Luckily, since infancy, I had been trained to eat just the allocated portion at the orphanage, and this habit continued well into my military days. So I was more accustomed to enduring hunger between meals than others. Outside the camp, people received special meals on the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but inside, there was no such thing. The only special treat I remember receiving was the shells left over after beans had been crushed to make oil. They were as hard as a rock and were usually given to farm animals, but when the prisoners received bits, it was an occasion to celebrate. The bean shells themselves were disgusting, but any change from boiled corn and wheat was very welcome. In this place where everyone was half delirious from perpetual hunger, working in the kitchen was a huge privilege. One could at least eat enough corn. Security guards would reserve these highly coveted positions for their snitchers.

The most tragic of all memories related to hunger in the camp is of a man named Myeong-cheol, who was a meek and kindhearted person. We worked in the same team, so I knew him personally. One fall morning we were marching toward a work site, accompanied by the armed guards as usual. No. 14 was located in a deep valley covered with chestnut trees. In the fall, chestnuts were dropping from the trees left and right. The family members of the guards would bring out sacks to stuff them with chestnuts, but when the starved prisoners attempted to collect some, they were immediately shot to death. That day Myeong-cheol could not resist the temptation and stepped out of line to grab a chestnut. It must have taken only a split second, but an accompanying guard saw him and smacked his head with a rifle butt. The weak man immediately fell to the ground.

"Beast of the worst kind, whoever told you to grab a chestnut?" The ruthless voice resounded harshly in everyone's ears. As soon as the guard finished his sentence, he pulled his trigger. The next second, we all saw how the prisoner's head had exploded.

"Throw the bastard away out of sight," the guard indifferently yelled at two other prisoners. Even though everyone was used to sudden deaths, this particular one was shocking for the guard's explosive brutality. The dead man was tightly holding a chestnut as he was dragged to the burial ground, leaving dark scarlet marks of blood as his last trace on earth.

There was another unforgettable incident related to hunger in Camp No. 14, an accident: the shaft collapsed and five prisoners were buried alive. When we dragged them out, they were already dead. We were told to wrap the dead bodies in straw mats and discard them, but two of our team members were so hungry that they cut off a leg from a dead body and hid it in the shaft. They came back to eat the raw flesh the following day. They were discovered by the guards, who immediately shot them to death.

Just like in real society, the camp had a definitely established hierarchy among the population, with the stronger ones coercing and manipulating the weaker ones. Strong prisoners would not usually go out of their way to punish anyone who irritated them. A strong one would order his retinue to pick on the opponent and wait until the opponent joined the fight. Only then did the strong one jump in to restore order and punish his opponent. Usually at that point, security guards would intervene and punish the weaker prisoner for initiating the trouble. As this process was repeated, the weaker opponent learned not to bother the stronger ones. The stronger ones were better fed as well. They received tribute from the prisoners who worked in the kitchen, many of whom had earned their jobs by informing on others. They needed the strong ones to protect them from other resentful prisoners. The guards knew this very well and therefore did not punish the exploitative ones. In fact, the strong prison­ers functioned like assistant guards appointed by the real guards, living and working with the prisoners.

But not all the guards were cruel. The elderly ones who had been around a long time were not so strict about the rules. It was the younger ones who were mostly cruel and abusive. They had plenty of energy to wield their iron fists and vent their anger on prisoners. However, I remember one particular man who guarded our work unit, a young chap. Sometimes he would subtly reward prisoners upon whom he wished to bestow favor. When we were working in the mine, he would smoke nearby. Since I had been a chain smoker before entering the camp, the smell of a burning cigarette would painfully bring back the days when I was living a normal life in society. Amid backbreaking labor, I would have reveries about my past, triggered by the guard's cigarette smoke. At such moments, the guard's occasional complaint snapped me out of my daydreams.

"What a bitter cigarette! Terrible taste! Pew! Hey you, come here and clean this!"

He would throw a perfectly fine cigarette on the floor and walk out. The cigarette had just been lit and was still burning. The appointed prisoner would immediately jump on it and puff away the heavenly bud while others intensely watched the orange flame and smelled the air with fathomless envy. Guards were not supposed to stay with one work unit too long so that they wouldn't develop any personal attachment to particular prisoners or possibly the entire unit. If the guards detected any humane connection between their colleagues and prisoners, they would report it to their superiors. And the next day every guard would be ro­tated to take charge of another work unit.


One day during work I was summoned by a guard. My heart sank. Was this the end of my dismal existence at last? Other prisoners must have thought that I was doomed like so many others who were summoned, never to return. I got in a container and ascended to the outside of the mine shaft. The brilliant sunlight overwhelmed me. For the two years I'd been at Camp No. 14, I hadn't seen any sunlight except during the brief road construction project. My entire body was itchy and dripping pus for lack of sun. My face must have looked simply awful. As I was facing the sun, tears kept flowing from my eyes. I finally made out a four-wheel-drive vehicle parked in front of the entrance to the mine. The guards ordered me to get in. Riding in the car, for the first time in two years, I had a bird's-eye view of the camp from farther up the valley. The car came down to the main area of the camp and the guards took me to a reception area, quite similar to where I'd been checked in two years before. Many more guards were waiting for me, unfamiliar faces, definitely not the guards from this camp. Out of habit, I kneeled on the floor and lowered my head. One guard who looked like a leader said, "Do you know why you are here?"

I had no answer. I really had no idea. But I knew for sure that I wouldn't be executed; otherwise, they would not have brought me here to the office.

"Read this form and sign it. It's very important for your own security."

The form he gave me said that I could not divulge any information about Camp No. 14 to anyone in any form of writing or speech. The head of the guards threatened in a low, coarse voice that if I opened my mouth, I would be dragged back to the camp and beaten to death like a stray dog. I immediately signed the paper, avoiding eye contact with the guards.

"The Great Party generously considered your case and decided to bestow clemency, so that you could move on from Camp No. 14."

I simply could not believe my ears. My entire body was numb with shock. For a few minutes, I thought that I was excused of my charges and was to be released. I could not believe that I was leaving this hell. I was so carried away that I prostrated in front of Kim Jong-il's portrait and hailed him with what little strength was left in me. "Long live the Dear Leader! Long live the Dear Leader! Long live the Dear Leader!" The guards did not stop me and let me go on until I ran out of breath.

When I was done paying my profuse tribute, the unfamiliar guards ordered me back to the car again. We drove for some time and I saw that we were crossing a bridge over a river. Then to my surprise, I saw a large iron gate. I felt like my head had been struck by a hammer. I knew better than to think that they would let me walk away from Camp No. 14 alive, but I'd been so shocked to hear the announcement that I lost my judgment temporarily and assumed that I was being set free. Of course, that never could have happened. What would happen to me now? The car drove through the iron gates and the guards took me to a reception area, where there were not only local security guards but also guards from the Pyongyang National Security Agency. Having been a part of that orga­nization, I immediately knew that the NSA guards had been dispatched from the capital. There was also an old woman in rags quietly sitting in the corner. She looked completely frozen, as if she wasn't breathing. When I entered the room, one of the guards pushed my back, steering me toward the old woman, and asked, "Hey, aren't you glad to see your mother?"


How strange that name sounded in that bizarre moment. I did not know what to say.

All I saw was a crooked face covered with wrinkles and multiple traces of indescribable suffering. Her skin was so thin and dry that it looked like a worn-out rag covering her protruding cheekbones. Her thin gray hair barely covered her tiny head, making it look like a skull with corn silk patches stuck on here and there. The old woman's dull eyes were gazing at me like I was a stranger. She was at a loss. I cannot rationally explain, but instead of feeling glad or surprised to see her again, I just felt incredible resentment toward this strange old hag.

"Stupid cow, don't you realize that it's your son?" one of the guards reprimanded her.

She lifted her head a bit and kept looking at me blankly.

I could see that the guards were looking at each other and exchanging signs. The ones from Pyongyang were also noticing the obvious lack of familiarity between the old woman and me. Later I realized that it was their final test to see if I had really been involved in my mother's conspiracy to forge my identity. Having confirmed what they probably knew already—that I had not had any substantial contact with my mother ever in my life—the officers left the room. The local guards shoved us to the exit and yelled coarsely, "You will be allowed to live with your mother from now on. Now both of you are dismissed." That was how I was suddenly transferred to Camp No. 18 and unexpectedly reunited with my birth mother.

When the guards released us, Mother led me to her quarters. Her gait was heavy and slow. She neither looked at me nor talked to me. She opened the door of a shabby hut made of corn stalks and mud. I could see the exposed stalks where dried mud had fallen out. The hut would collapse if there were a strong storm. The floor was exposed ground, nothing covering it. In a corner of the hut was a small kitchen where a steel pot and a broken bowl were the only household items. This was where Mother had been living ever since she'd been arrested. When we were left to ourselves, we sat in silence. Strangeness lay between us. She kept looking at me from the left, then from the right, and then left, and repeating the process. Her eyes welled up with tears, which rolled down her cheeks in streams. I felt that tyrannical fate was leading me through a tumultuous spiral where I could not see an inch ahead. My head was spinning, and I lay down on the floor and fell asleep without understanding the meaning of it all.

That night, I woke up to find my face covered with tears. When I opened my eyes, Mother was looking down at me. A fresh tear fell on my face. A strange and sore sensation came over me and I gazed into her eyes.

Both of us were speechless, but there was an emotional rapport when our eyes met.

"Mother..." I responded to her teary gaze in a low voice.


It was the name I'd longed for all my life, the word that I had wanted so badly to pronounce, without any pretense or doubt. There was the mother I'd craved in the days at the orphanage. Then followed an adoptive mother who did not love me. And now in front of me was the mother I had lost, unknown to me, for a reason larger than any of us.

We both could not sleep that night. Mother broke her silence and started to tell me about the past. About the father I had never known, about how Uncle took risks to save my life, how she regretted it after she gave me up at the orphanage, how she wondered about me all her life. We sat and talked; we talked and cried; and when we cried together, we un­derstood each other. Mother told me that my father was a talented mechanic and traveled frequently to Seoul as a peddler. When the Korean War broke out, he became the village chief of the Self-Defense Corps and killed many communists. When the South Korean Army and the allies marched up north, he facilitated their advance. She wasn't sure if he really worked for the CIA, but as far as she knew, it was true that he worked under the command of a U.S. Army officer.

Thus began two and a half years of my life with Mother at No. 18. Being with her made everything bearable. Whenever I had spare time, I would go up the hillside and collect any edible weeds for her, and she in turn would also collect anything edible to feed me. In the beginning I did not know that she was saving a major part of her ration for me. She thought she could get by with less food because she did manual labor, whereas I kept working in a coal mine. Everyone in No. 18, young or old, had to work. My mother's work was to weave plant material for carts and make brooms. Whenever I noticed that she was not eating, she would say that her old body couldn't digest coarse food. Prisoners in No. 18 ate half of what normal people would eat. We had to survive for ten days on a portion that normal people would consume in five days. Our main diet consisted of dried cornmeal boiled with any edible grass we managed to collect. So when Mother cut back on what was already a meager portion, it must have rapidly weakened her. But she was only too glad to put up with perpetual hunger for her only surviving child. For the first time I experienced unconditional maternal love. Her love was strong and pure; it defied any doubts or fears.

Camp No. 18

Compared to No. 14, No. 18 felt like heaven. By 7:00 a.m., all prisoners were required to sign in at their workplace, whereas in Camp No. 14, everyone was at work by 5:30 a.m. At No. 18, prisoners could live with their family in a single hut. No matter how dilapidated the living quarters might have been, it was humane to live with one's family. No matter how hungry the prisoners might have been, they could at least be with their family members. At Camp No. 14, sixty male prisoners slept together piled on top of one another in a small barrack. There, prisoners were not given any freedom to move around the camp, while in No. 18, they could climb up the mountain to a certain level and gather grass to supplement their diet. The only rule was that they had to return to the camp by a certain hour. For this reason all the bark on the pine trees in that area had been consumed by starving prisoners. If the guards caught inmates collecting bark, they were punished for damaging state property. If the prisoners were caught three times, they would be executed for their intention to destroy state property. Nevertheless, they risked their lives, scrambling to get their hands on anything edible. Although Camp No. 18 was a lot better than No. 14, I still witnessed so much brutality -- death by starvation and public executions prevailed.

Only much later did I learn that my former supervisor D had filed for clemency on my behalf, which must have been risky for him. He must have argued that I was sent to the camp not because of the crime I had committed myself, but because of what my parents' generation had done. In other words, I was not the "first generation of wrongdoers," as they would put it in North Korea, but the "second generation" imprisoned for my parents' crime; therefore, D had a chance of appealing for my transfer. Besides, I had been perfectly loyal to Kim Jong-il and his regime before imprisonment. Because Camp No. 18 was less ghastly than No. 14, the second and the third generations of wrongdoers were usually de­tained there. The original "wrongdoers"—the first generation—and the second generation were often executed immediately upon their arrest; the third generation was sent to No. 18, where the fourth generation was born. In principle, prisoners did not have the right to bear children at the camp. But because family members lived together, women occasionally became pregnant. Many were forced to have an abortion at an early stage. I heard stories about how the guards injected salty water into pregnant women's wombs and dug out the fetuses with spoons. It was not a secret that starved inmates would eat aborted fetuses instead of discarding them after the "surgery." But some women who were discovered too late to have an abortion managed to give birth at the camp to a generation of people who knew no life beyond the walls topped with barbed wire. They were detained there for having been born into a family of "criminals." However, because they had not committed a crime of their own, they did relatively easy work, such as working in the distillery or feeding the pigs, where they could scavenge food scraps to fight starvation. Guards poured night soil into the animal feed so that the prisoners would not steal it, but this failed to deter them from drinking and eating whatever was in the pigsty. When the pigs gave birth, usually to ten or twelve piglets at a time, the prisoners working there would steal two or three and put them in a boiling food pot. Then they would secretly have a sumptuous feast, unimaginable by any camp standards. They ate not only the tender meat but also everything else—skin, feet, eyeballs, and ears.

In addition to the second, the third, and even the fourth generation of wrongdoers, there were quite a few former grandees in Camp No. 18. Kim Chang-nyeong had held a distinguished post in society when he was a member of the Social Security Agency in charge of selecting agents to be dispatched overseas. Everyone coveted his position of great power, but Kim made a fatal mistake, aligning himself with the wrong people, who fell out of Kim Jong-il's favor. There was another man who used to be a central party officer. He was charged with espionage for personally receiving a Japanese weightlifter, Inoki, at his house when the Japanese visited North Korea. He claimed that he had done this as a sign of hospitality. Those in power knew that the harmless reception of the Japanese was only an excuse covering the real reason for arrest. Just like Kim Chang-nyeong, the officer had sided with people who were not aligned with the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Not having done anything wrong personally, and believing that he would explain his case&mdahs;just like I did when I was arrested—he decided to appeal. He wrote long letters of petition to his friends in Pyongyang but could not find ways to send them. Finally he was able to talk one of the guards into delivering the letters. However, when the messenger brought the mail to the "friends" in the central party office, not all of them regarded themselves as friends of a Japanese spy. Some reported this incident to Kim Jong-il himself, and according to the Dear Leader's directions, anyone involved, no matter how insignificant they might be, was arrested. One sultry day in August 1996, a truck loaded with fifty or so people arrived at the execution ground. Some of them were freshly arrested while others were familiar faces in the camp. Among them was also the guard who had delivered the letters. The camp authorities were really shooting the messenger.

In 1997, Camp No. 18 welcomed a new group of inmates from the town of Songrim. They were former workers from a steel plant producing the best quality steel in North Korea. The town was famous for having received the blessings of the Great Leader himself, who directly reaped the benefits of the plant's products. But in 1997, for constantly starved workers, steel became a means of survival—a product they secretly exchanged for low-quality Chinese flour only suitable to feed animals. The hungry workers could not help but choose food over national pride simply in order to survive. When Kim Jong-il found out about this, he was already battling low morale, and he wanted to make an example out of what North Koreans later called the "Songrim incident." Kim ordered the National Security Agency to dispatch an entire corps to encircle the town. The soldiers ordered the townspeople to stay in their houses and started searching. Twenty-four of the residents had more than three sacks of Chinese flour. They were all dragged to the outskirts of the town and publicly executed, without a trial. The ones who had fewer than three sacks of Chinese flour were rounded up and sent to the camp. Among these were many loyalists who had devoted their lives to serving the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Their hard work had been distinguished by People's Medals and Laudatory Medals, but facing constant, unbearable hunger, they had to follow their instinct. Their only crime was their need to eat in order to stay alive.

I could not sleep that night. Although my entire body was aching from the day's hard labor, my mind was set on fire. I shook with pain and anger at what I had witnessed that day. Loyalists to the state were rotting in this hellish place where death would be far more desirable. I thought of how utterly deceived the newly arrived from Songrim had been. In fact, everyone in this country was deceived, made to believe the false promise of a better life. And when a person simply wished to survive, they had to pay with their life. That night I lay straight on the floor, clenched my teeth, and felt warm sweat moistening my tight fists as I thought, I will survive. I have to survive. I will, I will, I will, I will! I will!!! Survive and tell the world about what I have witnessed. Otherwise, this insurmountable tragedy will be forgotten, never known to the rest of the world. I will survive to tell it myself. I will.


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