In the summer of 1982, my situation improved further. I finally made a friend. The camp had received two new prisoners, space aliens practically, whose extraordinary clothes and looks reminded us of our lost world. They were an elegant woman with dark glasses and her handsomely attired son, whose delicate white skin contrasted invidiously with our own, which the sun, wind, and snow had tanned into leather. Our jaws dropped when we saw them.
Within a few months their finely cut clothes would lose all their charm. The woman stopped wearing her glasses; she and her son looked just like everybody else in the camp. Less than a year after their incarceration, the boy, whose name was Yi Sae-bong, fell seriously ill and couldn’t move his legs. Fortunately his paralysis didn’t last. At first we had a hard time communicating, because having grown up in Japan, he only knew a few words of Korean; but he learned the language quickly and was soon able to tell me how he arrived in Yodok. He was a little older than I was and his family had lived in Kyoto, the city with the most powerful Chosen Soren cell outside the homeland. When the Party leadership in Pyongyang chose Han Duk-su to head the Japanese wing, the Kyoto cell protested. Han Duk-su, they said, was being parachuted in; he had never done anything for the struggle in Japan. The opponents backed down when they learned Kim Il-sung himself was backing the controversial nomination, but by this time the Great Leader’s embittered candidate was determined to exact revenge. Many members of the Kyoto cell wound up in the camps. They had opposed the will of Han Duk-su and, by extension, that of Kim Il-sung, and this was a crime that could not be easily forgiven.
Like so many who hadn’t understood the danger, Yi Sae-bong’s father decided to move his family back to North Korea. He planned to come first, then send for his wife, three sons, and daughter. Shortly after arriving, however, he was arrested for espionage and sent to a hard-labor camp. When weeks passed without a word, Yi Sae-bong and his mother came to North Korea to try to find out what had become of him. Instead of receiving information, they were arrested and sent to Yodok.
I loved to hear Yi Sae-bong’s stories about Japan. I was amazed by all its brands of beer—imported from all over the world—and by the huge black American soldiers that walked the streets. My imagination soared at the mention of France, England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia—the latter inspiring particular wonder. What most sparked my interest were the thick, juicy steaks people ate with a knife and fork. I wanted to know how they were cooked, what they were garnished with, the side dishes that accompanied them. I was sad I couldn’t imagine the taste of catsup and offended by the rampant wastefulness, which included the lighthearted dumping of half-eaten meals. More shocking was my friend’s contention that grocers sold fruits the whole year round. I was almost ready to suspect him of lying. It was either that or believe that Japan really was a paradise—a possibility that, despite my father and uncle’s warm recollections, I still found difficult to admit.
Yi Sae-bong was the person who really introduced me to Japan. I hassled him constantly for details about his school, the traffic, the movies, the department stores. I was amazed at his description of the automobile assembly lines, where robots put entire cars together in a matter of minutes. The most astounding things, though, were the toilets: they had chairs where you could sit and read a paper, or have a cup of coffee. It seemed so incredible to me. The first time Yi Sae-bong went to the bathroom at Yodok, he threw up.
The winter of 1982–83 was relatively mild. Yet ice and snow, alas, were not the only causes of death at Yodok. There were also accidents—terrible accidents—such as the one I witnessed while on special assignment at the clay quarry. A group of children had been ordered to excavate a ton of fine earth in a single afternoon, an absurd quota. Working without the benefit of either adult supervision or scaffolding, they burrowed child-sized tunnels into the foot of the cliff, whose environs soon turned gloomy with shadows and dust. My job that day was to carry the excavated earth over to the trucks that hauled it away. I was just finishing one of my trips when I heard a muted rumble, then screams. I ran toward the tunnel. There had been a cave-in. A number of kids were trapped. As I worked furiously to help dig out the rubble, I overheard my schoolmaster bantering with one of the guards.
“What a piece of work, these kids!” he mused. “Gone and collapsed the cliff again. What idiots! Guess they won’t be siring any little ones!”
We managed to pull five or six of the kids out alive, but all the rest were dead. I remember their bodies, blue but not yet stiffened. I felt a terrible anguish. These kids were my age; fate had simply been less kind to them. They should never have been given that work. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After giving the crew a sharp dressing-down, the teacher ordered everyone back to work—for the sake of discipline, I suppose. Still shaken, the kids begged to have the job put off until the next day, but the teacher wouldn’t have any of it. He kicked and slapped them until they rejoined their post—at the very place where they had just extracted their friends, whose bodies lay within view, waiting to be moved to the camp’s hospital.
Every village had one hospital—supposing that term may be justifiably applied to a two-room office reeking of disinfectant. This was the place where it was decided whether or not a prisoner was fit to work. The hospital’s furniture consisted of a table, a few chairs, and a single worn-out bed. The doctor, who was a prisoner, didn’t even have a lab coat. His only medical instrument was a stethoscope. There was a nurse to assist him, but he had no medicine apart from a few anti-inflammatories. The doctor’s main duty was filling out exemption forms for sick prisoners so they wouldn’t have to attend role call. In exceptionally grave cases, the doctor sometimes obtained antibiotics or some other injections, but this was rare.
Patients requiring immediate surgery—appendicitis cases, for example, and amputations—were treated at the camp’s one real hospital, otherwise reserved for guards and their families. It was a place prisoners tried to avoid, because after surgery they would be left alone, often to develop deadly secondary infections. If a patient required more than a rudimentary operation, he went untreated and was left to die.
Prisoners who suffered from pulmonary and hepatic ailments—of which there were many—were quarantined in a permanent structure. Epidemics, especially of flea-borne diseases such as scabies and typhus, were common. I had a teacher who was so afraid of contracting a disease that he once ordered us to leave the classroom and not come back until we had stripped completely naked, picked all the fleas off our bodies, and crushed them with our fingernails. Whenever a case of typhoid fever was discovered, the sufferer was immediately transferred to a quarantine area and his entire village put under strict isolation. The village residents were then sent up into the mountains until the end of the disease’s incubation period. After that, the village was burned to the ground and rebuilt by the survivors.
The quarantine area was divided into two wards, one for contagious patients, the other for psychiatric cases. In neither ward was medicine ever available. The patients simply waited for their illness to pass. If they died, that was just too bad. If they made it, they were sent back to work. The camp had many cases of madness, which put both the patients and their families at great risk. A mad person could say just about anything. If it was favorable to Kim Il-sung, nothing bad happened to the patient’s relatives. If, however, the comments were inappropriate, the patient and his family could pay with their lives. Madness struck young and old alike, the newly arrived and the veterans, as the climate of terror, scant food, and insufficient sleep put us all perpetually on the edge of delirium. Unbalanced prisoners had to work like everybody else, only their rations were made proportional to the amount of work they performed. If they worked a little, they had little to eat. If they didn’t work at all, they starved to death.
I saw many fits of madness at the camp. One student had to leave school for a month after a severe beating by his teacher left him delirious. Another instance of madness happened to a good friend of mine, whose father had been Kim Il-sung’s history teacher as well as the national minister of education. The boy’s family arrived at the camp the same time we had, and he and I were in the same class. One day in the middle of a lesson he suddenly started raving, then stopped and broke into uncontrollable laughter. When I asked him what was so funny, he told me that the previous day his brother had given him something very delicious to eat. He glanced about with a strange look in his eye and made nonsensical replies to all our questions. Finally, the teacher sent him home. We didn’t see him again for six months. Then he was back, apparently sane, only more reserved and taciturn than we had previously known him to be.