Having reached majority—as defined in the camp—I was obliged to begin attending a ceremony I would have preferred to skip. Yet few things were optional at Yodok, least of all the things that were most awful. Many public executions had taken place over the preceding years of my internment, but as a child I was not allowed to see them. Two of my more curious friends had once sneaked into an execution and described it to me afterward. The story left me feeling hollow and disgusted, which is the way my father and uncle always looked when they came home from one of these events, their faces hard and unnatural. They would skip their dinner and just sit there, never saying a word about what they had seen. If I pressed, they just shook their heads, and observed that “Yodok is no place for human beings.”
The first public execution I saw was of a prisoner who had attempted to escape. We were dismissed from work early that afternoon so we could attend the execution. The whole village was there. The skies were rainy and gray—as I always remember them being on execution days. The event took place at a spot called Ipsok, a beautiful little elbow on the river, which turned into an island during the heavy rains. Ipsok means “large elevated boulder,” which is exactly what the spot was: an enormous rock, as big around as a house, standing by the shore.
Three desks were set up for the occasion: for the head of the camp, the village chief, and the military guards. As the prisoners arrived they took their seats on the ground in front of the desks. Farther off, a small truck was parked under a tree. I was told that that was where they were keeping the condemned man. I felt anxious. The older veterans sat chatting. A few wondered aloud about who the man might be. Most talked about other things. Several prisoners used the time to gather herbs. Attending a few executions was all it took to render the experience perfectly banal.
Finally, the head of the camp stood up to read the condemned man’s resume. “The Party was willing to forgive this criminal. It gave him the chance here at Yodok to right himself. He chose to betray the Party’s trust, and for that he merits execution.” During the silence that followed, we could hear the condemned man scream his final imprecations in the truck. “You bastards! I’m innocent!” Then suddenly his cries stopped. We saw two agents pull him down from the truck, each holding an arm. It must have been ages since he had last eaten. All skin and bones, it looked as if he were being floated along by the guards. As he passed in front of the prisoners, some shut their eyes. Others lowered their heads out of respect. A few of the prisoners, especially the younger ones, stared widely at the barely human figure, hardly able to believe their eyes. The unhappy being who walked to his death seemed no longer a member of the family of man. It would have been easy to mistake him for an animal, with his wild hair, his bruises, his crusts of dried blood, his bulging eyes. Then I suddenly noticed his mouth. So that’s how they shut him up. They had stuffed it full of rocks. The guards were now tying him to a post with three pieces of rope: at eye level, around the chest, and at the waist. As they withdrew, the commanding officer took his place beside the firing squad. “Aim at the traitor of the Fatherland . . . Fire!” The custom was to shoot three salvos from a distance of five yards. The first salvo cut the topmost cords, killing the condemned man and causing his head to fall forward. The second salvo cut the chords around his chest and bent him forward further. The third salvo released his last tether, allowing the man’s body to drop into the pit in front of him, his tomb. This simplified the burial.
That unfortunately wasn’t the worst spectacle that I beheld at Yodok. In the fall of 1986, a condemned prisoner who didn’t have enough pebbles stuffed into his mouth, or had somehow managed to spit them out, began proclaiming his innocence and screaming that Kim Il-sung was a “little dog”—one of the worst things you can call someone in Korean. To shut him up, one of the guards grabbed a big rock and shoved it into the man’s mouth, breaking his teeth and turning his face into a bloody mess.
In October 1985, two prisoners were executed by hanging. The victims were members of an elite military unit that had succeeded in fleeing the country. They were well trained and very familiar with the terrain. One of them got as far as Dandong, China, at the mouth of the Yalu River, before he was stopped by Chinese security forces and sent back to North Korea. The Korean authorities had searched for them everywhere, even in the camp. For two weeks, Yodok’s prisoners were mobilized in the effort and forced to scour the camp grounds every afternoon. In our heart of hearts, we were grateful to the fugitives for the work-free afternoons. We thought of them as heroes. Their escape had accomplished the unimaginable. All of us were rooting for them and hoping they might tell the world about what was happening at Yodok. But it was not to be.
It wasn’t until we were called to Ipsok one morning that we learned they had been caught. Adding to our surprise were the gallows that had been erected in place of the usual execution posts. Our two heroes were brought forward with their heads sheathed in white hoods. The guards led them up to the scaffold and slipped nooses around their necks. The first fugitive was nothing short of skeletal, but the second one, the one who had gotten as far as Dandong, looked like he still had some reserves of energy. Yet he was quicker to die. The other one clung to life, wriggling at the end of his rope like some crazed animal. It was a horrible sight. Urine started trickling down both their pants. I had the strange feeling of being swallowed up in a world where the earth and sky had changed places.
Once both men were finally dead, the two or three thousand prisoners in attendance were instructed to each pick up a stone and hurl it at the corpses while yelling, “Down with the traitors of the people!” We did as we were told, but our disgust was written all over our faces. Most of us closed our eyes, or lowered our heads, to avoid seeing the mutilated bodies oozing with black-red blood. Some of the newer prisoners—most of them recently arrived from Japan—were so disgusted they couldn’t cast their stones. Other inmates, seeing an opportunity to rise in the estimation of camp officials, chose especially large rocks, which they hurled hard at the corpses’ heads. The skin on the victims’ faces eventually came undone and nothing remained of their clothing but a few bloody shreds. By the time my turn came, stones were heaped at the foot of the gallows. The corpses were kept dangling on the ropes all through the night, guarded by security agents, who made sure no one would try to bury them. To keep warm, the sentinels built a fire, which still smoked in the morning as crows began circling above the lifeless bodies. It was a ghastly scene. Awful.
Whose decision had it been to replace the firing squad with the gallows? The agony of hanging seemed terribly long—and the stoning ceremony was simply bestial. Yet the horror it produced was not unintended. The authorities wanted us to cringe at the very thought of escape—just as they longed to exact revenge against the fugitives who had briefly evaded their grasp. When the manhunt was still on, they had offered a reward to whoever found the fugitives first. They had sent their agents out with orders not to come back empty-handed. Once the fugitives were captured, the guards, who had suffered many threats and great physical weariness because of the escape, were ready to make the condemned men pay.
I attended some fifteen executions during my time in Yodok. With the exception of the man who was caught stealing 650 pounds of corn, they were all for attempted escape. No matter how many executions I saw, I was never able to get used to them, was never calm enough to gather herbs while waiting for the show to begin. I don’t blame the prisoners who unaffectedly went about their business. People who are hungry don’t have the heart to think about others. Sometimes they can’t even care for their own family. Hunger quashes man’s will to help his fellow man. I’ve seen fathers steal food from their own children’s lunchboxes. As they scarf down the corn, they have only one overpowering desire: to placate, if even for just one moment, that feeling of insufferable need.
Ceding to hunger, acting like an animal: these are things anyone is capable of, professor, worker, and peasant alike. I saw for myself how little these distinctions mattered, how thoroughly hunger alters one’s reason. A person dying of hunger will grab a rat and eat it without hesitation. Yet as soon as he begins to regain his strength, his dignity returns, and he thinks to himself, I’m a human being. How could I have descended so low? This high-mindedness never lasts long. The hunger inevitably comes back to gnaw at him again, and he’s off to set another trap. Even when my grandmother was suffering from pellagra, the thought of bringing her soup only crossed my mind after I devoured a few rabbit heads. What leftovers I did bring her, she pounced on with avidity, searching furiously for any remaining shreds of meat. Only after she had eaten her fill did she stop to ask whether I had eaten. Once she was cured of the disease, she became her old self again, stoically mastering her hunger while preparing the family meals.
Our family’s victory over death gave us new courage to face together the camp’s shortage of food and surplus of suspicion and hate. At Yodok, however, pity and compassion rarely extended beyond the family circle into that world peopled with vicious guards and snitches intent on betrayal. When my work team was ordered to bury the body of a widely despised informant, we all began to curse under our breath. Carry that son of a bitch? No way! As far as we were concerned, he could rot right where he was. But the guards threatened punishment, and we had no choice but to haul him up the mountain. With each step we became more enraged at the thought of giving this man a decent burial. Intent on getting it over with as quickly as possible, we dug an undersized hole, then folded the cadaver and stomped it with our feet to make it fit. What a picture we must have made, five gleeful kids kicking a cadaver into its grave. He had comported himself like a dog, and he deserved to be buried like a filthy beast. Yet what about us? What had become of us?
The death of compassion was responsible for worse acts than this. I saw fathers, released from the camps with their bodies broken and depleted, turned out of their children’s homes, hungry mouths with nothing left to give. Sometimes the fathers were left by the side of the road to die of hunger. Only their demise could bring any good, by clearing the way for the family’s possible rehabilitation. The system seemed specifically designed to stamp out the last vestiges of generosity.
I thought I would never be rid of my hatred for the cruelest guards and informants, and that I would never let go of my desire for revenge. But when I finally got out of the camp, all I wanted was to throw out my memories like a dirty shirt. That was just me, though. There were people whose hatred never abated—people like Kim Song-chi. The only thing that sustained him through his imprisonment was his desire for revenge. In the old days, he had been a Party cadre in Japan. He was a big, beautiful man, with a deadpan sense of humor and sex appeal that had caused numerous scandals over the years. He had entered the camp in 1974 at age fifty-five and survived fifteen years there—a rare achievement for someone without a family. Always discreet, he was meticulous about not bothering others and had a rule about never asking anything of anyone. He had an exceptional ability to master his hunger, and I never once saw him wolf down a meal. He was still at the camp when I got out, but a little later I heard that he had been released. On rejoining the outside world, he discovered that his wife had divorced him and found a new husband and that his children had forsaken him as an enemy of the people. This only redoubled his desire for revenge. At the camp, he was nicknamed the Count of Monte Cristo, and he now demonstrated just how worthy he was of that title. He tracked down and assassinated the security agents who had arrested him and then, the rumor went, killed himself.
Toward the end of 1985, my family had a new and very serious cause for concern. My uncle the chemist, whose work in the distillation plant was a source of much benefit to the family, fell precipitously from his pedestal. Had vengeance been the cause? Was someone trying to remind him he was still just a no-good criminal? Whatever the reason, one day he was moved to the camp’s hard-labor zone. As punishments went at Yodok, this was perhaps the worst, and few survived it. The work was conceived solely for the purpose of driving prisoners to their graves. Under close armed surveillance, my uncle was forced to toil without respite from morning until night. The work took place in a remote part of the camp; indeed, so remote that my uncle didn’t even have time to return to his hut at night, but instead had to get his three or four hours of sleep on-site. Three months was the longest we had ever heard of anyone surviving under these conditions. My uncle made it through exactly forty-five days, when an agent, whose alcohol trafficking my uncle had kept faithfully concealed, intervened on his behalf and got him out.