My last two years in the camp were not as trying as the previous eight had been. From 1985 to 1987, I was lucky enough to be transferred to a less difficult detail in a remote part of the camp, where I was able to find relative solitude and extricate myself from the familiar routine of paradox and cruelty. The paradox was in the nonchalance of the guards, in their lack of interest, ultimately, in how we were performing our work, and in the cynical black humor we ourselves deployed as a defense against our dreadful existence. The cruelty was in the punishments and accidents. Yet there were also adventures, enjoyable ones even, which I still recall with a certain fondness.
One day in May, while a couple dozen youngsters and I were up in the mountains gathering wild ginseng for a campaign to “support the Great Leader by earning dollars for the Party,” we suddenly found ourselves nose to nose with a bear. A friend of mine who had gone off to urinate had seen a moving black mass and, to convince himself that it was nothing, threw a rock at it. The bear roared with anger and started chasing us. Never had I imagined that such a big animal could run so fast! Fortunately he lost interest fairly quickly. We ran a bit farther, then stopped in the middle of a field. We stood catching our breath when we suddenly realized that wild ginseng was growing all around us. The bear had served as our guide!
Thanks to the kindness of certain guards, I also had the good fortune of being selected, along with two other prisoners, to be a shepherd. This task was more difficult than one might suppose because we were responsible for several hundred sheep, whose number was continually being verified. Yet the job provided relative freedom, along with a steady supply of sheep’s milk, a handsome supplement to my ordinary diet. When my traps worked, I was also able to catch an occasional rodent or snake. Then from April to August 1986, I was given the even better position of assistant beekeeper, which allowed me to benefit from the confidence of the guards, who harvested honey behind their superiors’ backs.
Having come to know the mountain well, the guards often ordered me to assist with burials. The one I remember most was that of Kim Su-ra, a young girl who died on February 16, 1986, the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birthday. She was the only girl in a family of five children, and she was very beautiful. The poor girl had been suffering from tuberculosis and malnutrition for a long time. In preparation for the ceremony honoring our Dear Leader’s birthday, she got dressed up with all the care and energy she could muster. The annual event was often an occasion for announcing a prisoner release, and she hoped her family might be among the chosen. But she collapsed upon arriving at the ceremony and never got up again. Since we all loved her very much and thought she deserved to be honored, we pieced together a coffin out of discarded planks from the neighboring sawmill. As we carried her coffin up the mountain on our shoulders, her body could nevertheless be seen through the holes in the wood. When we got to the burial spot, the ground was frozen to a depth of almost two feet, and we had to build a fire to soften the earth before we could start digging. The following spring, the ground shifted slightly, and the corpse started coming up. I re-covered it so that the girl might still have a decent resting place.
Alone in the heights, I escaped the abuse of guards: the blows, the forced labor, the sweatbox. Beatings didn’t appear on the official list of sanctioned punishments, but they were the camp’s most common currency. No trifle was too small to serve as a pretext for a beating—of a child or an adult. For example, the South Korean government used balloons to drop leaflets on their northern neighbor. Upon finding such a leaflet, a prisoner was supposed to turn it over to a guard or tear it up right away without reading it. The problem was, despite the paper’s weight and roughness, it was much prized for its potential hygienic use. One day, a newly arrived and still unsuspecting prisoner happened upon one such crumpled sheet and rushed to hand it over to a guard. The agent looked very smug at first, but as he began to unfold the sheet, his expression suddenly changed. The paper had already been used. The guard beat the hapless prisoner with such furor that he was unable to move for several days.
I somehow was always able to dodge such thrashings and avoid the camp’s most dangerous work details. Not all children were so fortunate. In the spring of 1986, three of my schoolmates were transferred to the gold mine, where their job was setting and detonating dynamite. They had to light the fuse first and run for cover second. They must have been especially tired one day, because they didn’t manage to get very far before the blast went off. Two of them were killed. The third, who was partially protected by a turn in the tunnel, had half his face blown off. Poor kids! The guards had no scruples about how they used them. They actually preferred children for the job, because they were smaller and quicker. Gold mine accidents were second only to malnutrition as Yodok’s leading cause of mortality. They were responsible for more deaths than even the felling of trees, not to mention the innumerable casualties that resulted from cave-ins and mishandled tools.
Soft-skinned city boy that I was, I was lucky to get out of there alive. Yet the harsh living conditions and never-ending work were precisely what saved me, because they left me no time to dwell on my condition. My every minute was accounted for. There were lessons to follow under threats from brutalizing instructors, trees to chop down, sacks of gold-laden earth to haul, rabbits to watch, fields of corn to harvest. My life was absorbed entirely in my efforts to get by and obey orders. I was, fortunately, able to accept my condition as fated. A clear-eyed view of the hell I had landed in certainly would have thrown me deeper into despair. There is nothing like thought to deepen one’s gloom.
Yet I wasn’t always able to repel the feeling of misfortune. I had dreams in which I died or witnessed the death of another prisoner, crushed by falling trees, for example, or stoned, like the unlucky hanged fugitives. At night, all the scenes I tried to erase from my memory returned: the cries of pain, the disfigured faces, the crushed limbs. When my eyes closed, the doors that shut out my fears and memories opened wide. Occasionally I saw Pyongyang again, something that caused me strange and useless pain; at times I wondered whether the camp was the dream, or Pyongyang. I was a bit like Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), who wakes up asking himself, Where does reality start? Where does the dream end? Was it I who dreamed of being a butterfly, or the butterfly who dreamed of being me? My obsession with death was not confined to nightmares, but sometimes appeared in daytime, disturbing my fanatical desire to survive. Death often seemed preferable to the hell all around me; but the thought of the cold wet earth that would swallow me was enough to turn me back toward life.
As the years passed, another feeling began to disturb my daily existence: the feeling of injustice, which grew sharper when I considered the discrepancy between everything I had been taught and all that I was living. My opinions evolved much as had my grand-mother’s—surprise gave way to a sense of injustice, which in turn transformed into indignation and silent denunciation. We had always been taught to think and speak in accordance with our Great Leader’s irrecusable axioms, but the guards’ actions continually contradicted them. I had memorized almost entirely A Letter to New Korea’s Much Beloved Children, which Kim Il-sung wrote for the occasion of the Day of Children, “who are the treasure of our country and its future. . . .”4 And yet I was being made to pay for my grandfather’s crimes. I was no longer the jewel in Kim Il-sung’s eye. I was a prisoner: filthy, tattered, hungry, spent. All those beautiful words had been flouted with perfect impunity.
Why had we been cut off from the world? Why had we been labeled “redeemable” if we weren’t to be given the means of reintegrating into the life of the country—especially since every bit of news in North Korea was filtered through state propaganda anyway? All attempts to communicate with the outside were severely punished. One prisoner who had wealthy family members living in Japan managed to get in touch with them by bribing a guard; when camp authorities found out, the guard became a prisoner. Even our own release—which we had been awaiting for years—was only announced to us at the last possible moment.