Our schoolwork continued on, as numbingly boring as ever. Disinterest, fear of beatings, and physical weariness collaborated to make dunces of us all. And assignments such as “summarize the Great Leader’s speech of July 3, 1954, and learn it by heart” were not the thing to awaken our intellectual curiosity. Then again, that was never the point. As long as we looked like we were paying attention, the teachers were content to let us sit and do nothing in peace.
We didn’t have that option in the afternoon, however, when the outdoor work was hard and demanded all our attention. To ensure that our minds and muscles stayed alert, our hoeing and weeding was supervised by armed guards, who could impose physical punishment if a production quota went unmet. Sometimes the guards’ attention slipped, but most of the time they kept us working like animals. I worked so hard I mostly had neither time nor energy enough to miss my mother—or even think of her. And yet I know her absence had a lot to do with the gloom I felt gradually enveloping my existence.
I found no more comfort returning to our hut at night. The atmosphere around our bowls of corn was so dreary and bleak. We seemed beaten, drained, wrung of all hope. It wasn’t anyone in particular, it was the entire family that was going through a rough patch. Grandmother—always the most loquacious of the brood—lamented her fate openly and blamed herself for the family’s misfortunes. She also talked a lot about Grandfather and with time grew ever more indignant that he was being punished because of some meaningless Party intrigue.
“Why not me?” she kept asking. “Why was he condemned and not me?”
According to some of our fellow prisoners, my grandfather had been arrested as part of a larger sting operation, which had nothing directly to do with either his remarks about the country’s inefficiencies or his general penchant for unwanted frankness. What his arrest apparently had sprung from was the Han Duk-su affair, the power struggle that raged for a time within the Chosen Soren’s political leadership in Japan.2 Many of the former Japanese residents living in Korea had also weighed in on the conflict, both directly and indirectly. Grandmother, acting with her usual verve, had been among those in the fray, but Grandfather hardly took an interest. “Politics was never his thing,” my grandmother kept saying. “But it’s still him they got.” I think she would have been content to take his place. She could never avoid feeling responsible for the family’s imprisonment and her husband’s condemnation. Poor woman. She had given everything she had to communism. For fifteen or sixteen years she militated for its ideas, believing she was realizing them in her beloved homeland. And this same country had taken away the man she loved and sent her and her family to a camp. She felt so guilty that she couldn’t stop asking for our forgiveness. Yet it was the lamentation and regrets—coming from a woman who was once so indomitable and strong—that really shook us to our core.
During this dark period, my uncle first confessed to having attempted suicide. It had happened during his first week in the camp, before the rest of the family’s arrival. I remember my grandmother listening to his story in complete silence and then just sitting there for the longest time, looking stunned and broken. When she snapped out of it, she stared straight into my uncle’s eyes and pronounced the following with a depth and solemnity that admitted no contradiction: “If anyone should die first here, it’s me, not you, but me. Don’t ever start up with that again.” Unsure whether she had succeeded in convincing him, she followed with another argument—or a cry, rather—asking, “How could I live if you died?”
My uncle tried to end it all again the following year. This time along with my father. When I got home from work my grandmother told me the two of them had gone up to the mountains with the intention of hanging themselves from a tree. I started to shake uncontrollably, then threw myself on my mat and thought about them as hard as I could, muttering, “Come back, come back.” I don’t know how long I had been this way when I heard the shack door creak open. It was them! I cried from happiness. They had thought themselves ready to depart the camp at any cost, to leave the hunger, the humiliation, the filth, the thrashings. In the end, the only thing that had stopped them was knowing their suicide would bring trouble upon the family.
Suicide was not uncommon in the camp. A number of our neighbors took that road out of Yodok. They usually left behind letters criticizing the regime, or at the very least its Security Force. They were heedless acts which virtually guaranteed that the letter writer’s family would be sent to a place worse still than Yodok. Truth be told, some form of punishment would await the family regardless of whether or not a critical note were left behind. It was a rule that admitted no exceptions. The Party saw suicide as an attempt to escape its grasp, and if the individual who had tried the trick wasn’t around to pay for it, someone else needed to be found. Some suicides tried to palliate the punishment their relatives faced by leaving behind notes in which they maintained their innocence but reiterated their faith in communism and in the regime of the much-beloved Great Leader. This sometimes induced the agents to treat the surviving family with relative leniency and merely add five extra years to the family’s original sentence, whose length they, in any case, never knew.
After my father and uncle emerged from their bout of depression, it was their turn to give moral support to my grandmother, who was teetering ever more precipitously between anger and desperation. They now tried to ply her with the very arguments she had recently used on them: there was still a chance they would get out one day; the family needed to stick together; they were like a five-man team, where the fate of each member depended on the fate of the group as a whole.
We did, indeed, stick together, and while Grandmother was never to recover her former joy for life, she did regain her equilibrium. At the same time, her political thinking also gradually began to change. When we first arrived at the camp, she had wanted to believe that our internment stemmed from a judicial error that the authorities might soon set aright. As time passed, however, her attention shifted to the camp itself, which she contended served no purpose in a Communist regime. If opponents and protestors were unhappy in North Korea, it was enough simply to kick them out. Running a camp such as Yodok was a crime, a concentration of inhumanity. Eventually, she went still further, asserting that though North Korea still wore the badge of communism, it had lost its soul. I think it was only then that she truly realized she’d been had. With the years, she stopped bemoaning her fate and beating herself up about it; but her criticisms didn’t stop, they just metastasized into anger and hate. She now saw the regime as closer to Hitler’s world than anything Marx or Lenin had envisioned. True communism she would never renounce, not even now that its actualization no longer seemed within easy reach.
Grandmother was also the first among us to fall seriously ill. She came down with a disease called pellagra, which was once common among North American Indians and caused by a diet too rich in corn. The malady was not difficult to diagnose. The sufferers’ skin turned rough, their nails fell off, and their eyes became ringed with deep wrinkles that made them look as if they were wearing glasses. The prisoners at Yodok called pellagra the “glasses disease” or the “dog disease,” because eating dog was a guaranteed antidote—though I suspect any meat would have done. If victims couldn’t get meat, they started losing their senses and trying to eat anything they could get their hands on. Sometimes this actually made them better, but many died from the disease.
In the spring of 1981, I was assigned to help bury the bodies of prisoners who had perished during the previous winter, when the frosthardened earth had made timely interment difficult. As with any detail, the work was carried out after school; but since it was considered somewhat unusual, we were rewarded with a few noodles to supplement our ration of corn. This would have sufficed to make interring bodies a desirable detail, but the work offered another very practical advantage. The burial team could strip the corpse of its last remaining clothes and either reuse them or barter them for other essentials. But the fringe benefits came at a price. Since Korean tradition requires that people be buried on a height, we had to carry the bodies up a mountain or to the top of a hill. We naturally preferred the hills at the center of the camp to the steep mountain slopes near Yodok’s perimeter. Their proximity allowed us to follow tradition without traversing tens of kilometers. But the neighboring hills eventually became overcrowded with corpses, and one day the authorities announced we would no longer be allowed to bury our dead there.
We thought the order had been given for health reasons, but we soon found out how wrong we were. I was walking back to the village with my team one evening after a day of gathering herbs up in the mountains, when we were overtaken by a terrible stench. As we walked on, the odor grew stronger and stronger until we finally came upon the cause. There were the guards, bulldozing the top of the hill where we’d buried so many of our dead. They actually dared to set upon corpses! They didn’t even fear disturbing the souls of the dead. An act of sacrilege held no weight for them compared to the possibility of growing a little more corn. As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of my friends vomited. Then we ran away, our noses tucked in our sleeves, trying to avoid the ghastly scent of flesh and putrefaction. The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface. Three or four days later the freshly plowed field lay ready for a new crop of corn. I knew several people from my village who were assigned to plant and weed it. Apparently, it was horrific work. Since only the larger remains had been disposed of during the initial cleanup, the field-workers were constantly coming upon various body parts. Oddly enough, the corn grew well on the plot for several years running.
That scene frightens me more today than it did back then. At the time, I remained relatively calm before that spectacle of horrors, which is perhaps the most telling indication of just how desensitized I had become. The more I witnessed such atrocities and rubbed shoulders with death, the more I desired to stay alive, no matter the cost. Maybe I didn’t have it in me to become a snitch or turn on my friends, but I had lost much of my capacity to feel pity and compassion. I developed a savage will to live and a disregard for everyone around me. I also learned to control my emotions in front of the guards, which was very much in my self-interest. Trickery had come to play an ever larger role in my life. I used it to procure food, catch rats, steal corn, fake work while doing nothing, and get along with the snitches.
I wasn’t alone. A few weeks after the bulldozer incident, I came across a group of people from my village standing around a woman who was loudly weeping and venting her sorrows about something. As I joined the crowd, I gathered she was lamenting the death of a relative, whose body was apparently still in the family hut. “Ah, why did you die so quickly?” she kept saying. “Why did you depart this cursed world?” The unhappy woman must not have noticed that a well-known snitch was in the crowd, as well as the leader of one of the work brigades. Her son, who was also there, saw the danger and tried desperately to catch her eye. It took him a while, but he finally did it, at which point the mother did a complete turnabout. “Oh,” she continued without the slightest transition, “why did you leave this world, which had become so happy under the wise governance of our Great Leader?” No one dared to laugh, but after that, neither could anyone cry.
My bouts of diarrhea finally abated thanks to an opium-based remedy procured by my uncle, most likely in exchange for a bottle of alcohol. But spring 1981, like the previous spring, was bringing more than its share of corpses. This was the season of the most oppressive agricultural labor, when we toiled without pause, hoes and spades constantly in hand. Most of the tools were in a sorry state, and when there weren’t enough to go around, the guards ordered unequipped prisoners to turn the soil with their bare hands.
The work did have one benefit, though it usually came too late to help the weakest among us. In the fields, it was sometimes possible for us to catch frogs, which were plentiful in this season. The amphibians could be skinned and cooked fresh or set out to dry in the sun and used later. Their eggs were also very much in demand. Besides the frogs, we also ate salamanders that we caught near a sweet-water spring. I never much liked the way they tasted, but they were said to be very nutritious. Eating three a day was supposed to keep you in great shape, like vitamin concentrates, though I have no idea whether this was science or faith. The way to eat a salamander is to grab it by the tail and swallow it in one quick gulp—before it can discharge a foul-tasting liquid. I often brought my grandmother salamanders so that she would stay healthy, but she never got the knack of swallowing them whole. We kids were the only ones who could do it easily. We ate anything that moved, making even the undiscriminating adults look picky by comparison. By the time a group of prisoners finished working a field, no animal was left alive. Even earthworms were fair game. When we were done with her, nature always needed a couple of seasons to recuperate before she could provide a fresh bounty of food. And yet our hunger remained, piercing, draining.