Our release from the camp did little to improve my father’s health. He had been sick for a long time, having let an ulcer condition go untreated when we were still in Pyongyang. Once in Yodok, an operation was out of the question. Truth be told, given the state of hospitals in North Korea, I’m not sure he would have come out of it alive anyway. The good side, if it can be put that way, was that at Yodok his poor health and fragile constitution saved him from being assigned to hard-labor details. He also was fortunate to have good hands and was a competent addition to the woodworking shop. My father was a calm, taciturn man who resigned to fate without protest. Like Mi-ho, his greatest asset in life was probably his ability to draw no attention to himself. In all our time in Yodok, he was never once approached to work as a snitch. The ten years he spent in the camp were lost years, no question about it—full of hardship and longing for his wife—but they were also strangely peaceful. Yet his lot had been too much to endure. His extinguished artistic dreams, the absence of his wife, the years spent making stools and broomsticks: it was all so much pain and suffering—and for what?
His illness worsened at the end of November 1987. The pain was not as acute as it had been on several earlier occasions, but he was now bedridden. I remember his last day. He was lying calmly in bed with his eyes closed, when his whole body suddenly went slack. He made a little gesture with his hand, smiling slightly—what I later realized was his final farewell. That’s how he died, without our even realizing it. That scene changed my perception of death. Previously, it always wore a mask of terror; I never imagined it could be so peaceful. Since then, death no longer scares me. My father showed me it could be a moment for smiling.
For the next two days, we sat watch over my father’s body, in accordance with Korean tradition. Family and friends gathered to drink, eat noodles and play cards; neighbors dropped by to help with all the preparations; and the North Korean state gave us an allotment for thirty liters of alcohol, as was its wont on the occasion of a citizen’s death. With the aid of some bribery, the thirty liters became a hundred liters, a volume approaching what was needed for a proper funeral. I buried my father up in the mountains, in a spot with a beautiful view. Koreans believe that a well-chosen burial site brings prosperity to the descendants of the deceased. I sometimes think this might account for all the good luck I have had since.
My father died without ever seeing my mother again. It didn’t have to be that way. Though our movement was restricted, she was free to apply for a travel permit to come visit us. The real obstacle was that we didn’t know were she was. In the West, such information can be had by consulting a phone book, checking with the police, or placing an advertisement in a newspaper. In North Korea, these options aren’t available. Ultimately, it was luck that brought us together. My mother’s youngest sister, who lived in Nampo, met an ex-prisoner from Yodok who kept in touch with a number of his old campmates, some of whom knew our whereabouts. Through them, we got our aunt’s address. But this stroke of luck only made me realize how unready I was for a reunion. While I wanted very much to see my mother, I still had lingering doubts—kept alive largely by my grandmother—about the circumstances under which she had gotten the divorce. My father, influenced perhaps by his mother’s unflattering insinuations, hadn’t made any inquiries among former acquaintances who might put him in touch with his wife. Were there other reasons why I hesitated to see my mother? For the last ten years, Grandmother had raised us, supported us, protected us. We had become her children. Did I suspect she feared that a reunion with our mother would cause her to lose us? Whatever the reason, I didn’t use the address until after my grandmother’s death in 1989.
Two years after our release, Grandmother was still in good health. She stayed at home mostly, sometimes doing light fieldwork, such as weeding and gathering food for the rabbits. The start of the summer of 1989 was extremely hot. One day—June 25, to be exact—Grandmother and I had a stupid argument about what she had made me for lunch. Later regretting the way I had acted, I resolved to come home early to offer my apologies, but when I arrived, I found the house empty. Then the neighbors came running over to tell me Grandmother had fallen in the middle of a field. I ran as fast as I could only to find her lying there motionless. We carried her back to the house, but alas, she had stopped breathing. She had mostly likely died of a cerebral hemorrhage. It was a terrible blow to my sister and me. We had been so close. She was the link that kept the family pieces connected. Mi-ho and I were now alone. Later on, I missed her with less desperation. She had guarded much of her beauty until the age of sixty, but after one year in the camp, she was white-haired, wrinkled, and toothless. Her illnesses, too—the pellagra and an internal hemorrhage—had left their mark. But, proud daughter of Cheju, she had surmounted every test.
A few weeks after Grandmother’s death, my sister and I wrote to Nampo for information about our mother, and in January 1990, we got permission to travel to Pyongyang, where we learned she was living. She tearfully recounted the events of the thirteen miserable years since our departure. Then it was our turn to tell what had become of us, while she sat there staring, mouth agape. She didn’t interrupt us once, but neither did she venture a single word against the regime. Had her loyalty survived intact? All she could bring herself to say was, “You were so unlucky. That’s fate. . . .” In the wake of our deportation to Yodok, she waited for her turn to come. She was sure she would soon be interrogated and sent to join us. But the security agents never showed up, and so, eventually, she went to them. She wanted permission to join us, but the agents knew how to discourage her. “Do you really want to be condemned?” they asked. “You know, we might also send away all your brothers and sisters and all their children.”
My mother thought she would never see us again. Instead of offering her a little hope, the agents assured her we would be staying at Yodok until our dying days. There was nothing else for her to do. She went home and unpacked all the food and clothing she planned to take on her trip. For a long time afterward, she lived alone, depressed and sick.
The little apartment she now occupied in central Pyongyang had one main room, a kitchen, and a little laundry room. Whenever we came to visit her, she would spend hours cooking us wonderful meals, delighted at the resumption of her motherly duties. For a time she considered leaving her apartment and moving closer to us, but I dissuaded her. She was so lucky to be living in Pyongyang and to be working for the People’s Office of Services, the government department responsible for the distribution of consumable goods. I promised we would come visit as often as we could. During my sojourn in Yodok, I had been angry at her for not joining us. I hadn’t understood her situation. I didn’t know that having already separated my parents, the state could also force them to divorce. I hope my mother isn’t angry with me now for having left the country, and I hope she understands me better than I understood her.
Life followed its course. A few months after grandmother’s death, my sister and I moved to Pyungsung to live with my uncle, who got married shortly after. Mi-ho decided to enter nursing school. Now that we were out of the camp, I had a chance to get to know her again. At Yodok, our work duties had always kept us apart. While I was generally working outdoors, she spent all of her time at the camp’s textile factory, only coming home for quick snatches of food and sleep. Only now that we were out did I realize how much she had changed. She was eighteen years old, and astoundingly beautiful. Back at the camp, the uniforms, the filth, and the prolonged malnutrition ensured that no one looked attractive. Once free, though, Mi-ho’s beauty became impossible to overlook, and I was proud when smitten friends complimented me on her physical charm. She had many suitors—too many even for my taste. An officer of the Korean People’s Army was especially persistent. He seemed like a nice guy and he was remarkably strong physically. He once won a prize in a national competition in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do. To curry my favor, he often brought me rice and heating fuel that he stole from his barracks, which made me a bit weary. Looking back now, he actually was a rather odd character. As chauffeur to a division general, he systematically tried to run over dogs he saw on the street. The hobby proved to be his undoing. One day he skidded out of control while chasing a particularly fleetfooted dog and drove the general’s car into a rice paddy. He got sentenced to a year in jail, and I never saw him again.
Truth be told, I enjoyed his conversation and missed him when he was gone. When I left Yodok, I also left all my friends. I later reestablished contact with several of them on the outside, but these relations were always rocky. That’s how it was with one of my former Yodok teammates, who survived outside the camp on money sent by his sister from Japan. He was a rich man by North Korean standards, and his wealth gave him enormous power. Among other things, it enabled him to divorce the wife his father had arranged for him. Give a bureaucrat a “little gift” and he’ll miraculously turn up all those files that have been lying in abeyance for months. My friend later used the same method to smooth over the legal questions that emerged from his beating his second wife, the fight he had with her new lover, and his second request for divorce. A little grease kept everything nice and quiet. That’s the way things usually work in North Korea: money and violence stand in for law and order. We even have a saying for it: “The law is far; the fist is close.” The regime that never tires of denouncing capitalism has birthed a society where money is king—more so than any capitalist society I have visited. This was the saving grace for Koreans who made the mistake of moving back from Japan. Money was their only defense against the mistrust of their fellow Koreans and the outright hostility of the police, who always suspected them of espionage and disturbing the public peace.
As for violence, it was everywhere. Anything that vaguely recalled affection or compassion was banished from the realm. Everyone threatened and was threatened, beat and was beaten. After the education I received at Yodok, I too became violent and had no qualms about hurting people. It wasn’t until I left North Korea that I started acting more like a human being again. I remember once being attacked, on April 15, Kim Il-sung’s birthday. As on every vacation day, most people just moped around the city, drinking and looking for a brawl. Fighting is always against the law in North Korea, but fighting on a holiday as solemn as Kim Il-sung’s birthday is considered a political crime, punishable by hard labor. I was strolling with a group of friends—my gang, if you will—when we crossed paths with another gang. A few insults later, a fight broke out. At one point I was pinned down by several men and started swinging like a madman. Somehow, one of my punches landed in the eye of a former marine rifleman, who was the head of the gang. He reeled back in pain. I took advantage of his hesitation and ran away as fast as I could. It was a good thing, too; a little later, some agents from the Security Force came and arrested several people. That evening, I was sitting outside chatting with my sister’s boyfriend when I saw the rival gang coming up the street. There were around twenty of them, a few wielding axes and shovels. This time I was really scared. But my sister’s suitor stepped forward: “If you want to attack Kang Chol-hwan, you’ll have to kill me first!” Thanks to his introduction, I was able to start a conversation with the gang leader whom I had punched. I offered my apologies, and he presented his compliments: “You are strong, Kang Chol-hwan. That’s the first time anyone has punched me like that.” We became friends, and from then on I was his protégé. The hierarchy of the street remained intact and I had nothing more to fear.
My behavior changed only gradually. In the camp I was beaten without being able to hit back, but now that I was out, I fought back systematically. Yet violence was repulsive to me. I fought and was mad at myself for fighting. But no matter how much I tried to avoid it, it always lay in my path. One day a gang started beating me with bottles, and instead of trying to fight back, I ran to find a nearby policeman whom I’d previously plied with little gifts. He tracked down my attackers and locked them up. Then he called me in. “Go into their cell and beat the crap out of them if you want,” he offered. “Only I don’t want any trouble, so you can’t kill them.” I started punching one of them, but then felt so ashamed I stopped and left the cell.
After that, I signed up for a tae kwon do course to help me control my emotions and stop people from messing with me. Once word got around, I was left in peace. One of the interesting things about North Korean hoodlums is the contempt they have for former political prisoners. Many gang members spend time in prison—that’s a right everyone has—and though their families aren’t dragged down with them, they consider the plight of Yodok’s political prisoners a cakewalk compared to what they go through. The horrors these ruffians face in prison is on another level altogether. As far as they are concerned, “the little morons from camp number 15” have it good.
I eventually got a job as a deliveryman for my gun’s Office of Distribution. Since the region where I worked was very mountainous and there weren’t enough trucks to go around, we usually did our routes using oxcarts. (Making a virtue of necessity, Kim Il-sung once wrote an homage to this mode of transport.) I enjoyed the work; we were always showing up with long-awaited supplies, so the people we met were happy to see us, greeting us with open arms and sometimes giving us tips. More important, by taking advantage of the price disparities between Pyongyang and the provinces, we were able to do a little side business. A pair of shoes that cost 5 to 10 North Korean won when it left the factory in Pyongyang could be sold for eight to ten times that in the provinces—almost half a typical factory worker’s monthly salary.
In the beginning, I took my work very seriously, tackling it with all the energy and efficiency I could muster. My years in Yodok had trained me well! My colleagues and superiors appreciated my work, and I was tight with my local Party secretary whom I’d once supplied with hard-to-find wood. To show his gratitude, he regularly assigned me the easiest routes, which left me plenty of time to rest. As was inevitable, I gradually lost my enthusiasm for the work. Without the guards at my back I saw no particular reason to exert myself any more than my colleagues. What I wanted was to visit other regions of the county and to see if there was any business to be made. So, after paying off the Party secretary and receiving my traveling papers, I started travelling around to other guns to purchase merchandise, which I then transported by truck or through private individuals. I bought wild ginseng, traded alcohol for shoes, sold bear bile and civet cat navels—which apparently work wonders on victims of stroke. I wasn’t making a fortune, but business was good. Before long I was ready to abandon the dung wagons and oxcarts and focus on developing my commercial ventures, which I did with the support of my friendly Party secretary.
The People’s Office of Services had two functions: to organize the distribution of goods to nonactive parts of the population, and to offset inefficiencies in the rationing system by procuring and distributing goods the system couldn’t supply. These included everything from hair products to pastries, shoes to clothing, bread to bicycles. As the Party’s main distribution network slipped into ever-deepening paralysis, the supplementary network became indispensable, though clunky and untenable. If we needed leather or gasoline, for example, we had to go to the army, where the person who ran the gas tank wielded more power than his commander-in-chief! I once procured a year’s supply of gasoline for the price of a Seiko watch. The parallel distribution network was by far the more active part of the system, and it offered an entrepreneur the chance to make a lot of money. On my own relatively modest level, that’s exactly what I did. I pocketed about 1,000 won per month, enough to pass for rich in North Korea. For most of the population, though, the situation was going from bad to worse. Eventually even ration tickets, the most basic currency, stopped being honored, because nothing was showing up at the stores, neither food, nor clothes, nor cleaning products.
The collapse happened suddenly. The clearest measure was the whiting that Koreans traditionally hang out to dry on the walls of their houses: the visible decline in the fish’s numbers, which began in 1988, was a sign writ large of the nation’s economic crisis. By 1990, drying fish were nowhere to be seen. That was also the year when the country’s rice distribution was severely mismanaged. Here is one aspect of the current famine that doesn’t attract enough attention. Besides the production problems that arise from inadequate work incentives, fertilizers, and working tractors, there is also the problem of distribution. The Yodok canton, for example, was still running surpluses as late as 1990, but no trains were available for transport. The only alternative transportation was the country’s aging fleet of run-down trucks, which kept breaking down on the unpaved roads. Rice that was needed in the city sat rotting in the countryside, while manufactured goods the country people needed never left the city.
As the situation worsened, peasants began raising their own goats and dogs and expending less energy on the collective farms. Considering how little their monthly salary of 100 to 150 won bought, they had little choice. A dog cost 300 won, a goat 400, a jar of honey 150. To keep from starving, peasants began cultivating thousands of hills abandoned by the collective farms, turning much of the countryside into a Far West of appropriated tracts. Demonstrating the same courage and tenacity I later discovered among the merchants of Namdaemun,5 these peasants often worked their new plots at night after putting in a full day on the collective farms. Under the direction of incompetent, corrupt bureaucrats, they spent the daylight hours dozing off and dragging their feet. But at night, when time came to provide for their families, they worked like demons. Unfortunately, private farming was a major cause of flooding in 1996–97, because deforested slopes susceptible to soil erosion led to landslides and a dangerous buildup of the riverbeds. Though the Party was fervently opposed to private land use, the peasant movement grew so strong that the Party had no choice but to give ground. It never formally changed its laws, but it grudgingly tolerates the practice, and is content merely to remind the peasants that in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea no land belongs to a single owner, and that anyone taking possession of a plot risks having it confiscated. The movement and its revolts have been so vast that the Party has only moved to dismantle the most egregious land grabs. This is all very revealing of North Korea’s present situation and its inevitable slide from communism to capitalism.
This wild trend toward privatization—or appropriation, if you prefer—explains why peasants are now having an easier time procuring food than workers who live in small towns, where famine has struck hardest. But the peasants suffer from another privation, of clothes, which they must buy from outlaw traveling salesmen. These merchants buy their stock on the cities’ black markets or from one of the handful of surviving sweatshops and factories. Sometimes clothes are smuggled in from China. When I was still living in North Korea in the early 1990s, the terms of exchange were heavily weighed against the peasants. A pair of 40-won nylon socks cost them two kilos of corn. An egg earned them 1 won; a bottle of oil, 10 to 15 won; a chicken, 60 won; but it cost 100 to 150 won to buy fabric for a suit of clothes; 400 won for a pair of Japanesesewn pants; 100 to 130 won for a short-sleeved shirt made in China—and 250 if it were made in Japan. This explains why relatives of former Japanese residents always came to visit North Korea with armloads of socks, clothes, and alcohol, whose exchange value was astronomical.
The generosity of our family in Japan certainly made a big difference in our lives. It enabled us to purchase the benevolence of guards and minders and slowly to inch our way closer to Pyongyang. As a matter of law, former prisoners are not allowed to leave the zone where they have been assigned to live. As a matter of practice, bribery makes everything possible. We wrote to relatives asking for help, careful to disguise our meaning, so as not to provoke the censors. North Koreans are permitted to send letters out of the country as long as they don’t criticize or complain about the regime. When our relatives suddenly received a letter from us after ten years of silence, they had a fairly good notion of what had become of us. During the years of our disappearance, they had made several attempts to visit us in North Korea and were repeatedly turned away by the police, who told them we were on vacation. There was much concern in Japan about all the North Koreans who had suddenly left on extended vacations. Petitions got circulated about the issue. Korean residents in Japan appeared on television to talk about the disappearance of their relatives. Maybe some of this even played a role in our release, though my grandfather’s death probably had more to do with that. While we will probably never discover what really became of him, it was believed that the authorities waited for a convicted political criminal to die before releasing his family.
Thanks to the power of money, we escaped the dreadful life of the North Korean backwater. Want to make a telephone call? You’ll have to pass through the operator . . . and hold the line. . . . And to reach Japan, endless troubles. Officially, of course, it is quite possible. In fact, only special—that is, tapped—telephone centers are equipped for the job, and they only accept foreign currency. Want to go out? There is only one movie theater for the whole canton. And while the prices are risibly cheap, the film will infallibly be some glorification of North Korea, its army, the anti-Japanese partisans, and so on. Everyone struggled to get by, and those with no other resources stitched their living together by selling plastic bottles, nylon socks, and army surplus shoes and clothes, which were valued for their durability. Army “surplus” was the basis of a flourishing black market trade organized by army officers. It left the lowly North Korean foot soldiers wearing threadbare old uniforms and canvas boots that couldn’t keep out the rain.
For permission to leave our canton, we had to pull out all the stops. A local pass could be had for a pack of cigarettes and a small quantity of alcohol, but an authorization to move to the Pyongyang area required much more than that. For a long time our efforts were going nowhere, but a visit from our family changed everything. The Security Force agents, who had been treating our appeals with indifference—not to say contempt—suddenly took an interest in our well-being. They began talking to us and even stopped us in the street to shake our hands! Conditions were evidently ripe for some discreet negotiations. With the aid of a few rather sumptuous gifts—most notably, a Japanese color television—my sister and I were allowed to join our uncle in Pyungsung, a city twenty miles outside Pyongyang. The scientific research center in Pyungsung had requested him to rejoin the post he had held before his internment. As a student at the polytechnic university he had finished first in his class, and his talents were widely recognized. After Yodok, he resumed his chemistry studies, and in 1991 received his doctorate. He was in a good position: the institute’s employees were treated as citizens of Pyongyang. It may come as a surprise to some that a former political prisoner was allowed to earn a master’s degree and doctorate; but the fact is that my uncle worked in a field where he could be closely monitored and controlled. He also had the benefit of some fabulous luck: the institute’s vice-president was his college roommate; and the roommate’s uncle, one of Yodok’s chief administrators, informed his nephew that the reasons for my uncle’s arrest had been minor and that his personal file was clean.
Living in Pyungsung, I was much closer to my mother and able to visit her regularly, sometimes with my sister, but most often alone. We were always happy to see each other. She cooked up little meals for me and bought me clothes. Yet there were a number of things worrying me. Since authorizations for visiting Pyongyang were hard to come by, I often traveled without them, in blatant violation of the law. The community police chief, who was a woman, usually turned a blind eye as long as I came up with a bribe, but how long would she continue before blowing the whistle? I was putting not only myself at risk, but my mother, too. Eventually, I decided to cut back on my visits.
I also had to think about my future. My uncle was pressuring me to enter the university, something my father had always wished. By making the choice now, I would finally obey him. I took the entrance exam, distributed gifts among members of the placement committee, and was accepted to the university for light industry at Hamhung. I would have preferred Pyongyang University, but as a former political prisoner my chances of getting in were close to nil. I attended classes at Hamhung for several months but never found my niche. One problem was that I lived as a boarder in a home to which I had absolutely no connection. The second problem, which eventually proved more debilitating, was the xenophobic atmosphere of that provincial town where “strangers” from other regions were neither liked nor welcomed. To make things worse, the town was full of hoodlums, and I had had quite enough of fighting in the streets. I considered transfering to the university in Pyungsung, but that would have been no easier than getting into Pyongyang. So in the autumn of 1991, I decided to abandon my studies and moved back to our apartment in Pyungsung.
I had to choose a calling outside the university. While I weighed my options, the aid that poured in from my relatives in Japan saved me from poverty. People in the West are familiar with the situation in Cuba, where part of the population subsists on packages sent from family members in the United States and Europe. In North Korea, the manna comes from Japan. The further the North Korean distribution system declines, the more necessary this influx of currency becomes. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, there were times when even ration tickets—forget about the rations themselves—stopped being distributed. The only way to get anything was by distributing gifts. Fortunately for us, my family was rich enough to earn the friendship both of the county’s Party secretary and its manager. The packages and letters from Japan came by mail, via a ship that still makes the fifteen-hour voyage between Niigata and Wonsan once a month. Every package is checked, of course, but only products made in the South are forbidden. Even money is let through. What we needed most, though, was medicine and secondhand clothes.
As far as allowing in visitors, the authorities are of two minds. On the one hand, they are delighted to welcome visitors bearing hard currency. On the other hand, there is always the danger these visitors will disseminate news of the country’s troubled political and economic situation. Thus, when a Japanese family comes for a visit, the entire canton is ordered to clean up and look smart. Every village and home that is likely to be seen is swept and improved. Sometimes the authorities go a step further: in advance of our family’s arrival, we were moved into a large two-room house, with a shed in the back, so that we might play better hosts. Just before my relatives arrived, Security Force agents dropped by with our orders. We were neither to mention the camp nor complain about anything whatsoever. We could chat, but it was forbidden to mention anything implying criticism of the government. To make sure we obeyed, agents listened in on our conversations around the clock. By the mid-1980s, after some ten years of protest—much of it from the Chosen Soren—the authorities decided to limit their surveillance to the daytime. Not that it really mattered. If we wanted to have a frank discussion, we only needed to give the agent a little money to go for a walk. . . . The authorities, in any case, really have nothing to fear from visiting relatives—who know the danger they would be putting their family members in if they talked.