Sexual relations were forbidden in Yodok. If a couple was caught having sex, the man was sent to the sweatbox. The same rule applied to any guard who used his power to take advantage of a female prisoner. If he made it out of the box alive, he was transferred to another camp. Women were spared the sweatbox. Their punishment was public humiliation; they were made to stand before the entire population of the village and recount their frolics. Their stories were never graphic enough to satisfy the guards, who demanded a detailed description of the caresses the woman used and the way her lover responded to them. They wanted to know what the couple had done with their hands and tongues and what positions they had tried. Nervous laughter could often be heard from the kids in the audience. This was our version of sex education, and it came with a heavy dose of voyeurism. Our feelings were ambiguous, both ardent and embarrassed. The ecstatic faces of the guards, full of joy and violent threat, the woman’s look of ravishment and humiliation, the snickering of the crowd: together they made for a rather sinister tableau.
A Myong-chul, a former camp guard who escaped to the South, has talked about the barbarous punishments he saw inflicted on women found guilty of sexual relations. There was a pregnant woman who was bound to a tree and flogged, another who had her breasts cut off, a third who died after being raped with a spade handle. I myself only had knowledge of the public confessions.
Sexual relations were banned in Yodok because they threatened to give life to a further generation of counterrevolutionaries. The North Korean state believes in eugenics, that people of undesirable origins should disappear, or at the very least be prevented from reproducing. I once saw an agent force a pregnant woman to disrobe and expose her rounded stomach to a crowd of assembled prisoners, then begin to beat and insult her.
“You, a counterrevolutionary, dare to bring a child into this world?” he screamed with fists flying. “You, from a family of traitors of the fatherland? It’s unspeakable!”
The unlucky women whose pregnancies were noticed were usually forced to abort. A prisoner in the camp—a former doctor—was responsible for the procedures. The conditions under which they were performed, without anesthesia or proper surgical instruments, were chilling. A few women were able to camouflage their state and bring their pregnancy to term, but this made little difference in the end. The guards took the babies away as soon as they were born, and they would never be seen again. There were two women in Yodok who succeeded in saving their babies. One, whose pregnancy was discovered very late, simply refused to hand over her newborn. With everyone looking on, she told the guards they could kill her if they wanted, but she wouldn’t give up her baby. She said they had no right to kill a child, who had never committed any crime.
“It would be treason against the Constitution of the Popular Democratic Republic,” she cried. “If our Great Leader heard of this he would be very unhappy.” She also said she intended to marry the father and make the child legitimate. To our amazement, the guards hesitated and then left her with her baby.
I remember her well because she was the older sister of one of my friends. Her father was a Worker’s Party cadre in Japan and among the most faithful of Kim Il-sung’s followers. Japanese police had once arrested him for hanging the flag of the Korean Republic on the facade of Kyoto’s City Hall. After moving to Korea, he refused to accept gifts sent to him by friends in capitalist Japan. This man, who was Red to the bone, was nevertheless arrested, denounced as a spy, and imprisoned along with the rest of his family.
His daughter was amazingly robust: I saw her work the fields with more vigor than most men; but love works in mysterious ways. She had fallen in love with a guard, and when her pregnancy was discovered, the father confessed his crime and was sent to the sweatbox. Thanks to the rats and frogs his lover sneaked into his cell, he was just able to make it through. By the time he got out, he was skeletal, his five-foot-ten-inch frame weighing less than 90 pounds. He couldn’t stand on his own and had to be carried out on a stretcher. The young woman not only helped him recover, she also did the inconceivable, feeding and caring for her baby while she continued to work; and the child actually made it. I later learned that in 1989, the couple was let out of the camp and got married. Most of Yodok’s love stories were neither as pleasant nor as long; prolonged malnutrition tends to refocus one’s desires.
Yet love endured, in spite of everything. It even had its heroes, like the thirty-year-old fellow who arrived at the camp in 1986. He was a good-looking man, and well built, too. According to the numbers floating around camp, he had been intimate with at least twenty-eight different women. His success came in spite of, or maybe because of, his reputation as a Don Juan. His pleasure did come at a price, however, for his conquests cost him three trips to the sweatbox, each lasting three months. No prisoner had ever survived so many repeated stints, but he got out safe and sound every time, on his feet and able to walk without help, as though nothing much had happened. We called him the man of steel. His hardiness and sexual prowess made him one of Yodok’s most celebrated and honored prisoners. Even the security agents were impressed and treated him with a certain deference.
I don’t know whether he is still alive, but if he is, I am sure he can be found in camp number 15, because every tour in the sweatbox added five extra years to his prison sentence.