In 1984, I turned fifteen. I was a scrawny kid, even by camp standards, but I had more stamina than most prisoners my age. I could walk briskly for hours with a heavy load, having come a long way since the time I passed out from carrying a log. No matter how much healthier the newly arrived kids may have looked, none could keep up with me. At Yodok, habit, training, and trickery counted more than strength. Arriving at the camp at the age I did left me plenty of time to develop these qualities.
My stamina gradually won me the respect of my fellow prisoners. Even the guards—who weren’t exactly the accommodating type—never exerted extra effort to treat me like a “troublemaker” or make my life miserable.
So do I dare admit it? Some mysterious bond had come to attach me to that place. I’ve heard it said that the most miserable slave is one who is content with his fate. That wasn’t my case; I wasn’t content. But Yodok was the big cage where I’d grown into adulthood and wised up to life’s tough realities. It was my cage—and though I was a hungry prisoner, draped in rags, I had learned to love the scents wafted by the springtime breeze, the tender green of the season’s first leaves, the last glow of pink in the evening sky as the sun sank behind the mountains. I could never look at those mountains, where I was sent to gather wild ginseng and other medicines with my friends, without being moved: I would recall the time we accidentally came nose to nose with a bear and had to hightail it down the mountain; the meal we made of a captured snake; the sweetness of the wild berries we picked. These were precious memories, of friendship and solidarity. These things were rare in Yodok, and I held them close. They gave me strength, unlike the old memories, whose return saddened me and sapped my strength. I hadn’t renounced the memory of my aquariums, but I now thought of them as belonging to another world, the abandoned world of Pyongyang; of my grandfather, who was condemned for being a “criminal”; of my mother, whom they’d kept back and forced to divorce my father; of Japan, as it had come alive in the stories of my uncle and father. This past had no place in my new life, which could accommodate no softheartedness, mine or anybody else’s.
That’s how I gradually grew into adulthood, though as far as the camp was concerned, the transition happened all at once, with “The Last Class.”3 Our teacher had a pithy way of illustrating what that transition really meant: “Up to now,” he told us on the last day of school, “when you made a mistake, even a serious one, no one shot you for it. But from here on out, you’re responsible adults, and you could get shot. Consider yourselves warned.” While waiting for a death sentence to test the full extent of my new responsibility, the very next day I was allowed to taste the simple joys of adult life in Yodok: physical labor from morning until night, distended quotas, the occasional distribution of third-quality tobacco, public criticism and self-criticism sessions, and so forth.
Criticism and self-criticism sessions were nothing new to me. Such meetings took place in every North Korean school, Yodok’s included. But outside the camp, these ideological exercises tended to be peaceable and rather formal in nature. Nothing much happened if you didn’t criticize well enough or happened to criticize too sharply. At Yodok, the stakes were much higher. Punishments consisted of hours of nighttime wood chopping, even for ten- and thirteen-year-old children.
The atmosphere was strained. You could feel the fear and hatred spreading through the room. The kids were not as adept at controlling their emotions as adults, who knew that the wisest thing to do was accept whatever criticism they received. The adults understood that it was just a routine that had nothing to do with what their fellow prisoners really thought of them. Soon enough, the criticized person would have to criticize his criticizer. Those were the rules; there was nothing personal about it. Yet the faultfinding of peers was hard for kids to accept, especially if it struck them as unfair. They would get angry, argue, interrupt each other. While the short Wednesday meetings, which lasted only twenty minutes, were hardly long enough to cause major damage, the Saturday afternoon sessions, which went on for nearly two hours, were considerably more lively and tension-filled. A special session also could be called if something unusual took place in school. The substance of adults’ criticisms was basically the same as the children’s: “I wasn’t careful enough during work hours . . . I arrived late yesterday because I was being careless, etc. . . .” The major difference was that the children’s sessions were conducted among one’s classmates.
As for the adults, each work team had its own location for Wednesday sessions, while on Saturday the different teams met together in a single large building, on whose walls hung the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. At the far end of the room was a platform with a table where the prisoner sat to present his self-criticism. Next to the table stood two guards, along with a representative of the prisoners. There were no other chairs in the room. The other prisoners sat on the floor in groups of five, clustered with their fellow team members. The assembly hall was always overcrowded. Some prisoners dozed off, others became nauseous from the intensity of the body odor that hung in the air—there was no soap at Yodok.
Sometimes we met in smaller groups to prepare our Saturday presentation in advance. Four of us would discuss our misdeeds for the week, while the fifth team member took notes. Afterward, the report was presented to a camp administrator, who selected the week’s ten most “interesting” cases for presentation before the entire village. The prelude to the ceremony varied somewhat, but the main action was always the same. The wrongdoer would step onto the platform, his head bowed, and launch into his self-criticism with a fool-proof formula such as, “Our Great Leader commanded us,” or “Our Dear Leader has taught us.” The offender then cited one of the head of state’s great “Thoughts,” relating either to culture, youth, work, or study, depending on the offense committed. A typical criticism went something like this:
“At the famous conference of March 28, 1949, our Great Leader stated that our youth must always be the most energetic in the world, in terms both of work and study. But instead of heeding the wise reflections of our respected comrade Kim Il-sung, I twice arrived late at role call. I alone was responsible for this tardiness, which demonstrated neglect for the luminous reflection of our Great Leader. From now on, I will wake up a half hour earlier and make myself equal to the task of fulfilling his orders. I will renew myself and become a faithful warrior in the revolution of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”
Then it was up to the presiding security agent to decide whether the self-criticism had been satisfactory. If it had been, the prisoner could proceed to the next step: criticizing someone else. If his criticism was found wanting, the agent would ask a member of the audience to expand on the criticism proffered. If the accused tried to defend himself, a third prisoner, and, if necessary, a fourth, was selected to take up the assault. Self-defense was never wise, because the review couldn’t end until the prisoner admitted his faults. Once a prisoner relented, we moved on to the next preselected case. The session lasted from an hour and a half to two hours, running from 9:00 P.M. until about 11:00 P.M., which wasn’t always enough time to get through all ten cases. If time ran short, the agents consolidated the wrongdoing of an entire team, or several of its members, into a single presentation. A member of the guilty team would then present the self-criticism on behalf of everyone involved.
The sessions were so conventional and formalized that it was hard to take them seriously—despite the perfect silence imposed by the hard gaze of the guards. We were like bored kids in a class they find meaningless. The smallest distraction would set us off. It happened several times that audience members let out an audible fart in the middle of a self-criticism. A little nothing like that was all it took to shatter the ceremony’s contrived solemnity and send the guards into a fit of rage. Sometimes they pretended not to hear, but other times they demanded to know who the culprit was. “Who farted?” they screamed. “The person who farted stand up!” If no one confessed, the guards kept us seated there until the criminal was identified, which eventually he always was. The prisoner would then be pushed toward the self-criticism table to expiate his fart with a mea culpa, at the end of which he usually received a week’s worth of supplementary work details.
We dreaded these long meetings that shortened our nights needlessly. They were too much of a sham to ever take seriously, but that’s not the way camp authorities saw it. They were always reminding us that “work alone can’t root out your rotten ideology. You need control.” What they meant was ideological control, and maintaining it was in part our responsibility. Hence, on arriving at adulthood, we were given three notebooks in which to trace the development of our ideological healing: “The Politics of the Party Notebook,” “The Revolutionary History of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il Notebook,” and the “Life Assessment Notebook.” All three accompanied us to the criticism sessions, so we could jot down all the lessons we learned.
To help advance our edification and reeducation, we also attended two classes a week to learn revolutionary songs and deepen our understanding of the life and thoughts of Kim Il-sung. The curriculum (called “the teachings”) consisted largely of listening to articles read out loud from the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, of which three copies arrived weekly at the supply office. We weren’t allowed to read the paper ourselves, because the direct word of the Party was reserved for security agents. Reprobates that we were, it would have been dangerous to expose us to more than a few preselected articles, and even these needed to be interpreted for us by the agents. With our rotten ideology, we were quite capable of misunderstanding their true intent. To say “interpreted” really gives the agents too much credit. All they ever did was pound us over the head with the Great Leader’s most tired platitudes. “I read you this article because the Americans and their puppets in Seoul are once again threatening war. The imperialists’ appetite for conquest threatens the peace, and to withstand it we must be ideologically armed.”
I don’t know whether the guards believed everything they said, but when they raised the possibility of a new war, some of us got nervous. We had always been told that if “the imperialists and their lackeys” ever invaded North Korea, the camp’s personnel would kill us before the enemy arrived. I still had hopes of leaving Yodok one day. I had no desire to be shot by guards without having the pleasure of seeing them run for their lives. These sorts of threats sent a chill up my spine, but they made very little impression on the older veterans. Whatever Will Be, Will Be was their motto, and whatever happened outside the camp was of no interest to them.
Still under the rubric of our ideological reeducation, the agents sometimes tested our allegiance to Kim Il-sung by making us sing endless verses of “The Song of General Kim Il-sung.” Part of the song goes, “In North Korea a new spring is everywhere on its way.” “Pang-bang kok-kok” means “everywhere, without exception.” I remember one old prisoner in the camp who had emigrated from Japan, like my parents, and who spoke Korean with a heavy accent. Instead of singing “pang-bang kok-kok,” he accidentally used a slightly different semantic form—“yogi chogi,” four syllables that mean “scattered in disorder” that have a rather negative association with filth and trash. The people who heard his slip began to laugh so hard they cried. As a consequence, he was criticized and labeled an “ideological deviant” and was almost sent to the sweatbox.
At the beginning of every year, we had the privilege of having Kim Il-sung’s extended New Year’s address read to us. The speech was the focal point of a two-day event featuring an absurd recitation contest. It could have been worse, though. It was January—a time when the thermometer often dipped well below 0˚F—and instead of being outside, we were gathered in a well-heated room. On the first day, we transcribed the speech in one of our notebooks, while the guards walked around to make sure we were making an effort. The next day, we worked on memorizing the speech by heart. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to doze off without being caught. The guards really only expected us to study the Great Leader’s message and to regurgitate a few quotes. To keep us honest, they picked a handful of prisoners to recite what they had learned. The top three contestants won prizes—considerable ones, given our condition. The winner got a coat, the runner-up, a pair of socks, and the second runner-up, a pair of gloves. The kids’ recitation contests were held in class, with the winner receiving a short reprieve from the usual work schedule.
My memory of these speeches has blurred somewhat, but I remember that they always started with an account of the previous year’s accomplishments in agriculture, industry, the armed forces, and so forth, and ended with a list of “goals for the future.” Somewhere in the middle came a nod to the Koreans residing in Japan, who under the clairvoyant leadership of Han Duk-su were continuing to lead a courageous battle in the heart of enemy land. There was also the inevitable mention of the South Koreans, who were suffering a cruel separation from the motherland and toiling under the yoke of America’s lackeys.
Many other leaders’ birthdays were important enough to serve as a pretext for pedagogic celebrations or breaks from the normal routine. On such days, candy was dispensed to all the kids in the country, sometimes even to those in the camps. I remember Kim Il-sung’s seventieth birthday in 1982. As soon as I got my candy, I ran home to show it to my grandmother. By this time, her faith in the Worker’s Party was long gone. “Ah, yes,” she said. “We gave them everything we had, and in return we get years in the camp and a few cheap candies. There’s something to celebrate, my child. And a big thank you to Kim Il-sung!” I ate the gifts anyway. They were the first goodies I’d tasted in a very long time.
The other birthdays were less solemn events, occasioning the dispensation of more modest rewards, but they were greatly appreciated. On January 1 (New Year’s Day), February 16 (Kim Jong-il’s birthday), September 9 (anniversary of North Korea’s declaration of statehood), and October 10 (anniversary of the Party’s founding), we would gather to watch an edifying television program or a revolutionary film. We were let off work early to see the screening, but sometimes we were so tired, we immediately fell asleep.
I remember one movie about the life of Kim Il-sung in which the main actor looked just like the Great Leader himself. He was taking his troops through the vast Manchurian plain, frozen solid by cold and snow. The fierce struggle of Kim Il-sung’s partisans and the cruel treatment meted out to them by the Japanese were supposed to arouse our sympathy, but they wound up doing the opposite. We were struggling as hard at Yodok as Kim Il-sung’s partisans in the frozen plain; what we saw on the screen was parallel to our own condition. The dungeons, brutalities, inhumane guards, and meager food supplies depicted on the screen didn’t move us; we were living with these things every day. Except our misery wasn’t inflicted by enemies but by our own compatriots!
I remember another film about a man named Kapyong, who signs up to be an auxiliary in the Japanese army. There wasn’t a kid in the country, Yodok included, who hadn’t seen the movie at least a dozen times and knew every word by heart. In the movie, Kapyong goes to work for the Japanese out of necessity and from a lack of political consciousness. Then he meets Kim Il-sung, sees the light, and is transfigured into a true patriot. He then sings a lament about the humiliations he has suffered at the hands of “Fascists.” In the theaters back in Pyongyang, all the kids would sing along with it. At Yodok we did the same thing, except that during the refrain, instead of bemoaning the fate of “poor Kapyong,” everyone substituted their own names.
The propaganda was so grotesque, the teaching method so crude, we were bound to reject it. Like every education institution in North Korea, the camp’s school had a room dedicated to the study of Kim Il-sung’s revolution. On one wall hung a huge portrait of the Great Leader, and everywhere you looked were photos illustrating the different stages in his heroic life. It was forbidden for anyone to enter the room with bare or dirty feet. We had to wear socks—and not just any socks. For this occasion we had to put on the special pair given to us on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, the pair reserved for visiting the holy sites. What did it matter that we suffered from the cold in winter and waded in puddles during the rainy season with only rags around our feet? Wearing Kim Il-sung’s socks for such workaday purposes would have been a sacrilege. The Party’s code of conduct required that we reserve them for the Kim Il-sung annex, no matter how much we needed them in our daily lives.
One day I came to school having forgotten that the Wild Boar had scheduled a visit to the Kim Il-sung room. I was wearing my ordinary socks, which were full of holes and barely holding together after half a dozen darnings by my grandmother. I was panicstricken, especially when the Wild Boar asked everyone who “accidentally” forgot their socks to raise their hands. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Two-thirds of the class had their hands up. The teacher was outraged. He ordered the scatterbrains to go outside and line up. Then he came out and kicked his way furiously along the row of children. He was wearing canvas army boots and let them fly with all his strength. During beatings, it was common for us to exaggerate our pain in order to win sympathy, but this time we had no room for exaggeration. The cries of pain were real. The blow I took to the stomach was so violent that I collapsed on the spot and lost consciousness for a half hour.
A couple of years was all it took for the camp to utterly change a child. Instead of turning us into stalwart admirers of our Great Leader’s regime, as it was intended to do, the camp taught us how to rebel, jeer, and mock anything vaguely whiffing of authority. Within a year or two of arriving, a prisoner lost every scintilla of respect he might have had for the Party. Our disdain spread like gangrene, beginning with the guards, then slowly, inexorably, making its way up to the great leaders.
I think the camp also changed me psychologically. As a child I was outgoing and restless. When people meet me today, they find me reserved and somewhat distant. Growing up in the camp made me shut myself off from the world. I learned about suffering and hunger, violence and murder. For a long time I was angry at my grandfather. Only around 1983 did I begin to realize that not he but rather Kim Il-sung and his regime were the real causes of my suffering. They were the ones responsible for the camp and for filling it with innocent people. All during my childhood, Kim Il-sung had been like a god to me. A few years in the camp cured me of my faith. My fellow prisoners and I were the wayward sheep of the revolution, and the Party’s way of bringing us back into the fold was to exploit us unto death. The propaganda, which exalted North Korea as the people’s corner of paradise, now struck me as revolting.