And then one day the nightmare was over. We’d lately sensed a change in the guards’ attitude toward us, but we hadn’t really thought much of it. It was barely noticeable, and there was no way to know what it meant. Some of the guards, most notably the one who had gotten my uncle out of hard labor, let us understand that it was in our best interest to keep a low profile and redouble our efforts. But such suggestions were not uncommon. The authorities often dangled false hopes in front of us to inspire harder work.
On February 16, 1987, all the prisoners in the village were summoned to the large meeting hall for the chance to celebrate the birth and sing the praises of Kim Jong-il. The camp’s security chief, wearing his full dress uniform, gave a speech about the benevolence of our Dear Leader. At the end of the address, the prisoners were directed through a choral rendition of the famous “Song of General Kim Il-sung”:
Along the Changback mountain
Lies a trail of blood
Along the river Amnok
Lies a trail of blood
Still today, above the flower bouquet of free Korea
Shines forth that glorious trail
Oh! Oh! Our general
The general Kim Il-sung
The security chief then announced that some of us were to be released. As the official got set to read the list of selected prisoners, a shiver ran through the crowd, followed by complete silence. February 16 was the usual date for these announcements, but this time there would be a surprise: I heard my family’s name being called! On the instant, it was difficult to understand what that really meant. My uncle, sitting next to me, was overwrought and struggled not to let his happiness show. It was inappropriate to feel joy at leaving a place that so effectively righted one’s mistaken ideologies and that was so immersed in the thought of Kim Il-sung! The other names were called out without our taking notice. My uncle leaned over and whispered in my ear, “We might still get out of this! We might still get out of this!”
I didn’t know what to think. The news was both extraordinary and terribly disturbing. I would have liked to discuss it with my grandmother and father, but they were sick that day and had been unable to attend the ceremony. The head of the camp then explained that President Kim Il-sung and his son, our dear leader Kim Jong-il, had decided that, given the ideological progress demonstrated by the aforementioned prisoners, an opportunity would be given them to work for the fatherland outside the confines of Yodok. The remaining prisoners should let this gesture stand as proof of our leaders’ boundless solicitude.
Following these brief comments, two prisoner representatives stepped forward to address the crowd. The first was a prisoner scheduled for release, the second would be staying on. So that they might prepare for their speeches, the two men had been made privy, under the greatest secrecy, to the list of departing prisoners. The representative who was leaving Yodok was the first to speak. Concealing any hint of hatred he might still have harbored for the Party, he extolled the wisdom of our leaders, their forethought, and, above all, the Party’s magnanimity: “Due to the grace of our Great Leader, the comrade Kim Il-sung, we will be set free in spite of our former crimes. We thank the Party from the bottom of our hearts and will do all in our power to be worthy of its decision. A debt of gratitude is also owed the directors of the Yodok camp, who helped us realize the seriousness of our misdeeds, reeducated us and our families, fed and cared for us, in the purest spirit of patriotism and revolution. . . .”
The representative of the remaining prisoners spoke next. Having already spent ten years in Yodok, he too had hoped to be among the departing prisoners; but it was not to be, and no one would ever give a reason why. He was, nevertheless, expected to prepare a speech thanking the Party and its Great Leader for their providential decision to keep behind the prisoners not yet ready to rejoin the revolutionary struggle as ordinary members of Korean life. “The Party is giving us the chance to continue bettering ourselves. On behalf of everyone staying here, I want to offer our thanks and to promise that we will work even harder from now on, so that we may one day merit our release.” The ceremony ended with everyone wishing for the good health and longevity of our Great Leader. My uncle and I rushed back to the hut. Our two patients couldn’t believe their ears. I think my grandmother shed a few tears—or perhaps it was my father. Mi-ho remained silent, but her face was glowing.
The next day, the liberated families were summoned to the security office of the village, where we each had to sign a document promising never to reveal any information about Yodok or about what they had seen during their incarceration. We acknowledged that sharing a single word on this subject justified “appropriate punishment”—a return trip to Yodok, for example, or to a worse place. We signed the documents with a fingerprint and waited to see what would happen next. There were only about ten families in all, a number so small that, in sum, it caused more tears and bitterness than joy in Yodok. So many had arrived at the camp when we had—or even before—but were not set free. Were they to die in that cursed place? Every time our eyes met, I felt a vague sense of guilt. I tried to avoid them and to escape that look of hopelessness, sometimes tinged with hate. Among the remaining prisoners was a girl who was a little older than I. I had worked with her a few times, and we were friends. When she heard I was leaving, she couldn’t stop crying—owing as much to her fate as our impending separation. I couldn’t find the words to console her. What could I say? What did she have to hope for, when the only reason for hope was postponed indefinitely? I was also terribly sad to be leaving Yi Sae-bong and his stories of Japanese life. There were other prisoners who had offered me their friendship and help during very hard times. With them I had shared rat meat and heaped maledictions on the Wild Boar; with them I had buried the beautiful young girl and taken revenge on the corpse of the snitch. I had burst out laughing when a prisoner farted at an edifying moment of a revolutionary film, and had shivered in the mountains under the falling rain. The memories of everything that had happened in the past decade were sweeping over me. I think I was actually afraid of leaving that place, of no longer seeing those mountain ridges all around me. Deep down, I had come to love them. They had been the bars of my prison and the framework of my life. They were my suffering and my being, bound indissolubly together. My most poignant memories were attached to the place where I had suffered the most. It was a strange, complicated feeling, for Yodok was still a hellish, inhuman place.
Though I was happy about being released, the prospect of leaving the place that had been my universe for so long filled me with anxiety. Ten years. It was a big chunk of life! What would be waiting for me when I got out? Besides joy, I also felt a certain moroseness. I had seen the same complexity of feeling among earlier departing prisoners, naively believing that I would be different—happy—that the joy would be written all over my face and overwhelm every other emotion. Now that my liberation had arrived, my thoughts and emotions were as confused as theirs had been. I had grown up nourishing myself on rats and frogs; I thought of this as my life, and it was. I had grown accustomed to it; changing worlds, from one moment to the next, was strange to me. For the adults it was different, because they had other references in their lives, but they weren’t aglow with joy, either. Grandmother, for one, was not at all expansive. “Ah, well, I guess I won’t die in this camp after all,” she declared flatly. “So in the end I will get to see my other children.” What I didn’t understand at the time was how angry she felt—along with my father and uncle—about the ten years she had lost at Yodok, about the impossibility of ever rediscovering a satisfactory life.
These reactions were on the affective order: I was going to miss the places, the people, the friendships, the shared moments. But the day-to-day struggle for life at camp number 15 was no cause for nostalgic sentimentality. It had taught me very little over the years. Some veterans of the Soviet gulags speak of the camps as having been their university, but it wasn’t so for me. The only lesson I got pounded into me was about man’s limitless capacity for vice—that and the fact that social distinctions vanish in a concentration camp. I once believed that man was different from other animals, but Yodok showed me that reality doesn’t support this opinion. In the camp, there was no difference between man and beast, except maybe that a very hungry human was capable of stealing food from its little ones while an animal, perhaps, was not. I also saw many people die in the camp, and their deaths looked like that of other animals.
Before leaving, we gave our tools as parting gifts to the friends and neighbors who were staying behind. These rusted, twisted things were among the only belongings we were allowed to treat as our own.
Liberation day finally arrived. It was toward the very end of February 1987. Several prisoners accompanied us as far as they could, waving good-bye. It was a very sad scene. We knew we would likely never see them again, but we tried to be reassuring, to affirm that their day would also come and that they should take good care. They nodded in agreement, without showing how slim they thought these hopes and how ludicrous this advice. We left in the same kind of truck that had brought us to the camp ten years earlier. When it started up, I was taken back to our departure from Pyongyang, and to my mother’s tear-lined face as it receded into the distance. The vision struck me with new and unexpected force—for I had all but forgotten my mother. Her memory had become so faded and distant it hardly seemed real. Now, as the truck slowly spat and rattled into motion, her image raced back to me in a flash. In an instant I understood that leaving the camp had finally made a reunion possible and that from now on I could start thinking of her again without it being simply painful and absurd. I was bowled over by the intrusion of this memory and the meaning it might have.
We drove for about twenty-five miles before arriving at a village that would be our temporary home until more permanent lodgings could be found for us. In North Korea, each county (do) is divided into several cantons (gun), and each canton into several districts. For the time being, we were not permitted to leave our gun, which was a part of the county of Yodok. This restriction was applied to all recently released prisoners. We spent our first night in a run-down little hotel where I dreamt I was still in the camp. When I woke up, I still thought I was there. But a glance at the white floors brusquely reminded me that I was “out.” In the camp, a bell woke us up every morning at five. Here, there was no bell. I was overtaken by a very odd feeling, and it took time to fully grasp that I had entered a different universe. The countryside stretched out in every direction. We were at first assigned to an agricultural part of the gun, and for a time we lived and worked on a collective farm. Now that we were free citizens, our diet was much better and usually consisted of rice, soybean curd, and whiting. This was in 1987, before the famine had taken root and spread throughout the country.
We were only at the farm a short while when my uncle managed to receive authorization to move to Pyungsung, where his valuable skills as a biochemist could be put to better use. The rest of us had our assignment to Yodok confirmed, and that’s where we stayed until April.
Every district in North Korea is administered by two committees: one administrative, and the other political. Upon reentering civilian life, the Security Force handed us over to a Work Section controlled by the former, which assigned us to agricultural work on a collective farm. We were, of course, marked as former prisoners—in North Korea, identification cards always give a citizen’s most recent occupation. Mine indicated that I had worked for army unit 2915. That wouldn’t mean much to a civilian, but a security agent could immediately understand he was dealing with a former political prisoner. We were constantly being watched, in our neighborhood and at our work, both by security agents and ubiquitous snitches, who were just as plentiful on the outside as they had been in the camp. Everyone in North Korea, of course, is under surveillance; as former prisoners, ours was just a little tighter. The odd thing was they had no reason to watch me; I had a policeman inside my head. The camp had trained me so well that I was still greeting every agent I came across with a sweeping, ninety-degree bow. This made all my new friends laugh, which gradually helped me break the habit.
My family and I had no desire to stay in the countryside, but citizens who wanted to leave their gun had to obtain permission from the director of their work group, the police, and the local security office. Former prisoners also required a supplementary authorization from the State Security Agency. Fortunately, many of our relatives had avoided the camps, and several of them—most notably, two of my dad’s sisters and my first uncle—were ready to help us. Because they were related to political prisoners, they had long ago been dispersed to small towns and villages at a remove from the capital. (One of my aunts thus wound up in Changjin, a mountain village made famous by the dramatic defeat dealt there to the Americans during MacArthur’s retreat in December 1950.)
Yet my relatives had remained free—as free as anyone can be in North Korea—and by giving the bureaucratic wheels a generous greasing, my first uncle was eventually able to reassemble my father’s side of the family in Musan. There he eventually met one of our former Yodok neighbors, who told him of our release. He quickly arranged for the whole family to take the long, difficult train ride to our kun. The reunion was very moving. At first, my uncles didn’t recognize my sister and me, but after a moment of silence, we threw ourselves into one another’s arms. They hadn’t had word of us in all that time and had feared the worst. I remember there were outbursts of laughter and crying all through the night.
Prior to our relatives’ visit, we had been wearing the clothes the security agents had given us upon leaving the camp. The departing prisoners were all given the same clothes. While slightly more presentable than the camp uniforms, they all shared the same cut, which lacked every hint of elegance and made us look every bit like former prisoners. Thanks to our relatives, who came bearing gifts of Japanese clothes and underwear, we were instantly transformed from paupers into rich people. My uncle and my two aunts stayed with us for almost a week and did everything in their power to brighten our spirits. And boy, did we ever need it!
The peasants with whom we worked had little sympathy for our plight. As far as they were concerned, former counterrevolutionary prisoners were by definition bad, shady people. They knew about Yodok, of course, just as every North Korean knows about the country’s network of camps. What people don’t know is the number of camps there are, how many people they hold, or what happens to people when they get there. But most North Koreans share an exceptional innocence and honesty; in time, these peasants realized our incarceration didn’t necessarily mean we were bad people. As the distance between us lessened, gradually we were able to share parts of our story with them, though the details remained vague, for the sake of everyone’s safety. By the end, I think they actually came to like us and feel genuine compassion for our fate.
Days on the collective farm began with a general assembly, which provided us with our daily ration of political manna. The Party secretary who ran the meetings was usually content to rehash one of Kim Il-sung’s recent addresses or to read an editorial from Rodong Sinmun, but when excited about some recent event, he could drone on for as long as an hour and a half. A Party cadre then took roll call before sending us off to get our work assignment from the office of management. During wintertime, most agricultural workers were shifted to indoor maintenance work. North Korean peasants don’t know the meaning of vacation. They work so hard for their measly compensation, which sometimes isn’t even paid out in real money but rather in ration tickets. Until 1990, these tickets could be redeemed practically anywhere, but they have since lost all value in many parts of the country.
Thanks to my uncle and to the countless gifts he distributed, my family was soon moved to a small town near the district’s industrial center. We lived there from 1987 to 1990, exchanging exhausting agricultural work for less taxing jobs in shops and factories. Leaving the farm also saved us from being classified as peasants, a caste to which my family otherwise would have been condemned forever. In North Korea, the children of peasants are destined to remain peasants. They are systematically prevented from climbing the social ladder and can only advance by joining the army or by greasing a lot of palms—an option that presupposes having connections abroad. In the past, peasants could also pull themselves out of the underclass by marrying a city dweller, but the laws were changed in 1988. A marriage between a peasant and a city dweller now means social regression for the latter, who has no choice but to move to the country.