I changed jobs many times that year. None was easy, but in the monotonous life of a child prisoner any change is welcome. I worked in the cornfield, buried corpses, gathered herbs up in the mountains. The outdoor work saved me from developing full-blown pellagra, whose first symptoms—the infamous glasses and the mad desire to eat everything—I had begun to develop. Up in the mountains I caught frogs and boiled their eggs in water, and this helped me fight off the disease.
For several weeks I also filled in at the gold mine, located on the lower slopes of the camp’s northern hills. Toward the end of the Japanese occupation, the mine had been assessed insufficiently profitable and shut down. Now that there was a free labor force, however, the calculations had changed. Seven to eight hundred men were employed in the mine. Working in teams of five, as in the rest of the camp, they entered the shafts without any protective gear—not even so much as a hard hat—and with only a flashlight or candle-powered storm lantern to light their way.
One day we learned that a special mobilization had been decreed to augment national gold production and to help raise foreign currency for Kim Il-sung. To fill the new quotas, the guards transferred several agricultural teams over to the mining site. My team was one of them, though we were spared the difficult details in the farthest depths of the mine. That, fortunately, would have required additional training, something that was considered a waste of time during a mobilization period. My team’s work consisted mainly of gathering and transporting minerals extracted by the veteran miners. While my job was relatively safe, I was very much affected by the scariness of the place. All of the galleries, even the deepest ones, which ran down a hundred yards, were poorly shored up. Cave-ins were common and left many miners permanently crippled. The place was so frightening it was considered cursed. According to camp legend, it always drew lightning during storms and, according to a few old-timers, several people—among them one guard—had been struck dead there by lightning bolts.
The mine work was as exhausting as it was dangerous. Since we didn’t have wheelbarrows, we were left to transport the excavated dirt on our backs, in sacks that we then dumped into oxcarts at the mouth of the tunnel. From there the gold-bearing earth was wheeled to a water basin, where other prisoners would pan it for nuggets. Since the river that wound through the camp was also believed to bear gold dust, during the mobilization period, special teams were formed and made to stand in the water and pan that, too.
Despite the dangers, mining did have a few advantages. To compensate for the difficult working conditions, miners were given slightly more food and sometimes even a little oil. Since the guards didn’t dare descend into the shafts, the miners were also left in relative peace with no one around to insult and bark orders at them. The snitches were still around, however, and their presence was enough to maintain discipline and guarantee a steady output. To avoid being punished with an extra night shift, the miners had to keep moving from six in the morning until noon, and then again from one in the afternoon until seven or eight in the evening.
My tenure in the mines marked a new stage in my life at the camp; it made me realize there were others even less fortunate. At least I didn’t have to spend all of my days in the subterranean dust and darkness. I had also triumphed over the “yellow spring,” pellagra, and even my interminable diarrhea. Finally, I had gotten to know the internal workings of the camp and discovered how to pull the strings necessary for survival. I learned how the work routine functioned and how assignments were organized; I figured out the guards’ system for reshuffling work teams, changing orders and standards, and assigning team leaders. When a special campaign was launched, I was prepared for it, knowing I had nothing to fear from these punctual mobilizations that would end in a week or two, at which point I would rejoin my family.
I also understood the camp’s system of indirect supervision, which made the work team, rather than the guards, the primary means of surveillance. The official security agents only kept a close eye on the newest arrivals—to break them in, mostly. Once prisoners were established the guards tended to keep their distance during the day, reasserting themselves in the evening, when it came time to tally the day’s production. That’s when they really got tense. If our quota wasn’t filled, we were supposed to keep working until it was, but since the guards would have to stay out in the cold, too, and wait to get home to their families, they sometimes overlooked the shortfalls. Recognizing this made me feel a lot less powerless. In short, I’d made it through the adaptation period that, depending on the detainee, could last anywhere from several months to several years. I was twelve years old now, and I no longer wanted to die. I even started to develop that sixth sense all prisoners have for sniffing out informants. While I now realize they were just as much victims of the system as I was, back then I thought of them as agents of voluntary evil.
A few months after my arrival, a kid who was part of my gang was selected to be an informant. The moment he got the news he came to tell us about it, warning, in jest, that we’d better start watching what we said around him. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help but take him at his word. We grew more suspicious of him by the day. Whenever he was around, we refrained from criticizing the guards and teachers and refused to complain about work. The unhappy child became increasingly isolated from the group and was eventually pushed out altogether. His situation was truly perverse, and ultimately it provided him all the motivation he needed to become a genuine snitch.
Living under constant threat of denunciation, my friends and I came to hate these spies with a passion. We held them in contempt and always tried to get them back for their treachery, no matter what honor might be due their age or former station in life. Our classmate was only twelve years old, but Cho Byung-il was in his sixties—a ripe, almost biblical age by camp standards, and one ordinarily worthy of respect. A former cadre of the Korean Communist Party in Japan, he’d become one the camp’s most dreaded informants. Many prisoners had him to thank for extra work details; his snitching had even sent several people to the sweatbox. While he was hated by all the prisoners at Yodok, it was the children who despised him most. His bald head and round face were the targets of countless taunts and jeers. One day, as we were passing in front of the soybean-processing shop where he worked, he tried to peek out at us and eavesdrop on our conversation. When we saw his head appear in the shop window like a rising moon, we nearly split our sides laughing. For a long time after that, just mentioning that scene was enough to make us crack up. I’m sure Cho Byung-il felt miserable about his social and physical decline. He suffered from malnutrition just like the rest of us and, eventually, from incontinence, too, a disability the camp’s hospital made no attempt to treat. In the end, his death was as ghastly as it was miserable. He had always lived by himself, apart from the other bachelors. One day, some prisoners who had suffered from his informing locked him into his hut and left him to die of hunger. The authorities knew what was happening, but did nothing. Cho Byung-il had grown too old and weak to be of use.
I remember another informant at Yodok whose specialty was snitching on kids. Once, we decided to exact our revenge by setting a trap for him at a spot he crossed several times a day. There, we dug a hole resembling the fugitive trap we had once discovered up in the mountains. In place of sharpened stakes, we filled the ditch with excrement from the latrines. The trick seemed easy and risk free. As luck had it, the infamous Wild Boar came along first and wound up burying his foot ankle-deep in feces. We saw the whole thing from our little hiding place, and now had every reason to try to keep our location secret; but our teacher was so outraged and was having such a hard time extricating himself from the mess that we just couldn’t restrain ourselves. We started laughing so hard we cried. Within a minute he had us collared and was giving us the thrashing of a lifetime. When he was done, he ordered us to scoop out all the excrement by hand and carry it over to the neighboring garden plots, where it would serve as fertilizer for the guards’ summer vegetables. The abominable chore took days, during which time several of us saw our hands break out in strange-looking pimples and blisters.
Fortunately, that fall the Wild Boar was temporarily transferred to another camp and replaced by the only teacher I had at Yodok whom I still remember fondly. Thanks to this man, my life at Yodok took another turn for the better.
Shortly after his arrival, he called me into the teachers’ hut and kindly began asking me a series of questions: What was my name, why was I at Yodok, when had I arrived? and so forth. Then he asked me how long it had been since I’d last had a sweet.
“Not since I’ve been here,” I answered.
“Would you like one?” he asked. And with that, he handed me a piece of candy, which I immediately stuffed into my mouth. As I sucked, he told me not to mention it to the others.
In class, he spoke in a normal tone of voice and called us by our first names. Unaccustomed to such treatment, we were on our guard at first, despite the happiness we felt at finally having a teacher who behaved humanly. He stayed on in the camp for only a year or a year and a half, but it was his confidence and protection that led to my being selected warrener.
As in every school in North Korea, save in the capital, the students at Yodok had the responsibility of raising rabbits. This had nothing to do with teaching us about anatomy or rodent physiology, nor was it a matter of inculcating students into a love of animals or nature. The animals were raised to provide skins for the army’s winter coats. Each class had about two hundred rabbits, which were tended to by student guards of the class’s choosing. Rabbits were serious business in North Korea, and bringing up a quality pack could make a teacher’s reputation. Each wanted to present the most beautiful rabbits and the largest litters, so as to provide the army with the greatest number of skins. One teacher at Yodok even tacitly encouraged us to steal corn for “our” rabbits, so they would be the best-fed nest in the school.
The position of rabbit guard was desirable for the simple reason that it replaced one’s afternoon work detail. The job consisted mostly of cleaning the cages twice a week, which was easy because trays under the cages caught all the droppings. (The cages were built this way in order to protect the delicate health of the rabbits, whose feet must never remain too long in the damp.) When the other students went out to gather grass for the rabbits, I was supposed to weigh their harvest and report it to the teacher. Some of the gatherers were girls whom I liked, so when they came back a few pounds short, I just closed my eyes and jotted down the requisite 70 pounds. I also had to maintain the fires in the guardhouse adjacent to the school and in the special room dedicated to the study of Kim Il-sung’s revolution. We and our parents could damn well freeze to death, but Kim Il-sung’s relics, posters, and pictures needed always to stay warm.
Another, more difficult, part of the job was protecting the rabbits from rats that tried to squeeze into the cages at night to devour the young. To try to control the problem, we set up rat traps using wooden boxes, but the captured rats very often chewed their way out. The only viable solution was to mount a guard. The late hours were hard on kids who were only twelve or thirteen years old, but it gave us a chance to steal a few fruits and vegetables from the fields otherwise reserved for the guards. The rabbits were our allies in these endeavors, disposing of the pits and peels that threatened to denounce our thieving. Thanks to them, I was able to taste melon for the first time in three or four years.
Given how hungry we were, it was inevitable that our stealing would eventually get out of hand. The armed sentinel who guarded the vegetable field always fell asleep in the first hours of his watch. The temptation was just too great. While we were never caught red-handed, the pillaging eventually became conspicuous, and our teacher let us know that we, the students, were the leading suspects. He quoted the loss estimates and threatened serious consequences should the trend continue. We were in a tight spot and needed to weigh our options carefully. Apart from the teacher’s warnings, we also had to consider another, more immediate danger. A new guard had been assigned the night watch, and he was likely to be less sleepy and quicker on the draw than his predecessor. Yet if the theft ended from one night to the next, it would be tantamount to admitting our guilt—with God only knows what consequences. We ultimately decided we should keep on stealing for a while, making the best we could of the moonless nights and the aural cover of what turned out to be the new guard’s snoring. In the end, it was so easy we almost felt sorry for the guard, who was always getting chewed out by his superior.
We slaughtered the rabbits in the fall, stripping and preparing the furs in their most luxuriant season. As for the meat, its dispensation was the exclusive prerogative of the agents and their families, who each received their own rabbit. When they came to fetch their animals, we waited on them like regular butchers, asking if they wanted their animals eviscerated; whole or cut into pieces; with or without the head, liver, or kidneys. What joy we felt when they turned up their noses at the lungs or the heart and bade us, “Keep it!”
Yet it wasn’t just disgust that compelled the guards to refuse the offal; in Korean culture there is the idea—born partly of generosity and partly of disdain—that one should always leave a portion of what one eats to an inferior. It’s a way of establishing one’s superiority, of saying, “I don’t need it” and “it’s good enough for you but not for me.” To break with this custom is to lose face, even in a camp, and this was very much to our benefit. At the end of the slaughter day, we divvied up the innards and cooked them in the simplest and fastest way possible, by boiling them in water. It seemed like the most exquisite meal ever, though the kids were sometimes so hungry they couldn’t wait for the meat to cook and just ate it raw.
Such charmed days were painfully rare, however, and pinching a rabbit on the sly was no easy feat. The animals were continually being counted and recounted, so that even a single disappearance would be immediately noticed. A short while after the departure of my favorite teacher, I was nevertheless able to pull off the trick a couple of times. Though I had been relieved of my post as rabbit guard some time before, I still knew the system by heart: the layout of the rabbit area, the duration of the rounds, the habits of the various personnel. My chance came on a night when my work team was being punished for missing a lumber quota and kept late to finish the job. The shortfall hadn’t been our fault. The work site was a long way from the village, making it impossible for us to go home for lunch and get the energy we needed to complete the job. When night fell, we sneaked into a nearby field and stole some corn, but rather than satisfy our hunger it only whet it. Then someone suggested we steal a rabbit, which everyone thought was a great idea. I swear I could see my cohorts’ eyes glistening in anticipation. I was chosen for the mission, along with two friends—Hwang Yong-soo and Bae Jong-chol—who kept the lookout while I slipped into the warren. Within a few minutes, a rabbit had been pulled from its cage, killed, skinned, eviscerated, and its intestines buried. Our only fear now was that the smell of cooking might give us away. So while the rest of us went back to work, one member of our gang cooked the rabbit at a safe distance. It was one of the most delicious dinners I ever had. It had been six months since I had so much as tasted meat. I still think about that night sometimes, wishing I could see those kids again. The last time I saw them was when they left the camp. Hwang was the first to go, then me, then Bae. And that was it, silence. . . . They probably remember that night, too, and shake their heads thinking about the huge risk we had taken. With North Korea ravaged by famine, they may even regret not being back in Yodok, within reach of the rabbit cage.
If I were to improve my nutritional intake and realize my dream of becoming the family’s provider of meat, the better option was rat. One of my coworkers—a camp veteran—was the first to introduce me to the dish, going so far as to demonstrate its proper preparation. Despite my revulsion, I couldn’t resist the odor of grilled meat—which was not deceptive, because the rat was truly delicious. Though the rodents were everywhere, trapping them was difficult, especially because most were quite small. The other challenge was figuring out how to reuse the traps, since the first captured rat left behind a smell that warded off the others. After much experimentation, I discovered that the smell could be eliminated by passing the contraption over a fire. By this time, however, I was already perfecting my newest trap design, which used wires strung across the entrance of the rats’ nest to snare and strangle the animals as they tried to exit. My clever little invention was completed in 1982, and thanks to its increased catch, I was able to supplement the family’s small food ration.
Mi-ho made less fuss about eating her first grilled rat than I did. True, I initially lied to her about the nature of the meat, but when I later told her the truth she wasn’t the least bit disgusted. The poor girl was so hungry. She was suffering from pellagra, and that dish may have been her last shot at survival. At my urging, the entire family eventually took to eating rat. My uncle was the hardest to convince, but after a few months of demurring, the day came when his hunger pains were just too sharp and he, too, relented. That was the last time I saw him turn down a piece of grilled rat meat. The Yodok rats, it should be said, were fine specimens—much finer than any rat I ever caught in Seoul—and since they reproduced quickly, they were the only food product in the camp that was never in short supply.
I was not the only prisoner in Yodok to hunt rats. There were many devotees of the sport, and each had his or her own technique for trapping and preserving the game. I discovered that a friend of mine had turned his hut into a full-blown breeding ground. The other kids and I had noticed that he was always in good shape, while we, despite our little supplements, remained hungry and thin. Was he stealing food? Was someone giving it to him? Fearing that we had begun to suspect him of collaborating with the guards, the boy called us over to his hut one day for an explanation. His family was allotted two rooms, just like we were, but instead of using all their living space, they all squeezed into one room and left the second space entirely for the rats. To attract them, my friend had stolen corn from the fields and spread it on the floor. The plan worked perfectly, and the number of nests multiplied. The only maintenance required was sprinkling a little corn on the floor every few days. Whenever he got hungry, all my friend had to do was grab a wire trap and fish out a rat. It was a veritable pantry, the secret to his robust health.
Another of the camp’s rat hunters prospered by taking advantage of his job as the watchman of the corn depot. The vast corn storage area, which was surrounded by barbed wire, contained about a hundred small wire-mesh silos, into which the prisoners emptied their harvest at the end of each day. Prisoners were allowed to enter the area freely, but the guard always patted them down on their way out. Everyone envied the guard’s job, especially because the man who held the position was chubby—indeed almost fat—which only helped fuel speculation about his diet. People said that he always had meat in his mess tin. While most prisoners were sure he was doubling as a snitch, they also suspected him of stealing corn. Security eventually got wind of the rumor and sent guards to search the man’s hovel. What they discovered was a large receptacle packed tight with salt-cured rat meat. The guards couldn’t be more pleased with the man’s ingenuity and fervor in controlling the population of the corn-thieving rats. The complaints of his libelers only helped shore up his position.
All the meals and extra rations provided me by the rats gradually changed my view of these animals. I began to see them as useful, even precious, on a par with chickens and rabbits. I was truly grateful for their existence, and still am. Absurd though it may seem to those who have never known hunger, I actually felt a connection with them. I remember an encounter I had with a rat in our hut one night. Raising my head from my mattress I saw him staring at me from between two floorboards. We were locked in each other’s gaze, staring into each other’s eyes for what seemed a long time, until the spell broke and he scurried away. Before entering the camp, I had thought of rats as scary and disgusting. Today I think of them as touchingly kind animals.
Sentiments aside, the following winter was a hard one, and the occasional rats I trapped afforded considerable succor. The snowfalls were so heavy that only the sharpest crags of the surrounding mountains broke through the thick blanket of white. It seemed as though nature were telling us that to get out of Yodok we would have to be the world’s greatest mountain climbers—a title none of us could claim.
As long as the temperature remained above–13˚F, work went on as usual. Imagine us kids, dressed all in rags, trying to chop down a tree whose essential oils were needed for the latest “Let’s Earn Some Dollars for Kim Il-sung” campaign. With our bodies waistdeep in snow, we had to dig evacuation paths in case a tree didn’t fall as planned. Many adults were killed and maimed that way. Once a tree was down, we chopped off its branches and hauled the trunk to the foot of the mountain on our shoulders. At the end of the day, we returned to our huts—my, I almost said homes!—with our hands and feet frozen stiff and our whole bodies utterly exhausted.
On one particularly cold winter’s day, I got home with a strange, painful stinging sensation in my feet. I tried soaking them in lukewarm water, but this only made them feel worse. Cold water was the only thing that brought relief. The next morning when I woke up, my toenails were solid black and I was unable to walk. The guards let me work inside that day, weaving wicker baskets as I had been taught in school. My toenails eventually fell off, but I miraculously escaped necrosis and the amputation it would have necessitated.
New shoes were given to us every two years, but the quality was so poor, and our work so demanding, that the pair never lasted more than a year. To avoid frostbite, we wrapped our extremities in layers of rags and dried rat skins. In the bitterest cold, we swathed our heads and faces in tattered castoffs, leaving only our eyes uncovered. Such measures could never contend with the bitter–10˚F temperatures that descended on the mountain. The only way to keep from freezing was to keep moving; but this wasn’t something everyone could do, and every year, several old people died from the cold.
These memories come back to me whenever I go skiing and see high, snow-covered mountains with sheer black crags. I try to explain my feelings to South Korean friends, but have little success. Where they see an ideal landscape, I see the natural barriers of Yodok, a place conceived for human misery, whose gloom still has the power to overwhelm me.