Around this time, I reestablished contact with my friend Yi Yongmo—the boy who once became delirious in the middle of class. His family had been released from Yodok four years before we had, but it now looked like they might be on the verge of being sent back. The Security Force had begun calling in his father for interrogations and occasionally summoning my friend as well. We were very close and saw each other often. He told me about his fears and vented his anger against the regime. As a former prisoner, I also was under surveillance, and his friendship could bring me trouble. In the spring of 1991, Yong-mo’s father was accused of criticizing Kim Jong-il, and the whole family was sent back to the camp. I haven’t heard from my friend since. Is he still alive? He was always a little scrawny, and I fear the worst. . . . He often had fainting spells, during which he broke into a cold sweat. I loved his mind. He was my best and most faithful friend. Apart from my family, there is no one I miss more. For a time I worried that he would be tortured and made to confess about our counterrevolutionary conversations. In North Korea, every political criminal is tortured: Yong-mo had criticized Kim Jong-il and sung South Korean songs, and for this he was surely beaten and deprived of food and sleep.
I could have continued to live in Pyungsung in relative peace had I not been accused of illegally tuning into South Korean radio. These transmissions I picked up featured songs, covert messages aimed at Party cadres, and analyses of the situation in the North. One program featured interviews with renegades. Another surveyed news from around the world. This was how I learned of the fall and execution of the Ceausescus and of the establishment of diplomatic ties between South Korea and Russia; but it was Nicolae Ceausescu’s demise that most impressed me. He was an intimate of Kim Il-sung and had come to visit him many times. I was dying to tell people the news. Was I indiscreet? Perhaps, but I think my real mistake was listening to those programs too often and with too many people. I felt the surveillance of the Security Force gradually tighten around me. The agent who usually took care of my bureaucratic needs in exchange for gifts and loans was avoiding me; worse yet, he wouldn’t accept my gifts. Was it now compromising to receive something from my hand? One day, I managed to corner him and get the scoop. “You’re under surveillance,” he admitted. “A buddy of yours ratted on you for listening to South Korean radio.” After making me promise never to reveal my source, he fingered my accuser. I was flabbergasted—it was someone I considered a friend! I never had a clue.
Nothing pleased security agents more than identifying recidivists and sending them back to the camps. Gifts were the only way to keep the agents at bay, and by this point the gifts had to be both lavish and plentiful. How I hated these men. Once I made it to South Korea, I had no scruples about trying to make their lives as miserable as possible. Whenever I gave interviews, I mentioned how surprised I had been after my denunciation to find myself interrogated by two agents who were my longtime friends and radio-listening companions. I wanted revenge! Those slimeballs probably wound up in the same place they usually sent others. I imagine they’ve expiated their sins by now, and as far as I’m concerned, they can go free.
In the early 1990s, few North Koreans dared tune in to radio transmissions from the South. Many more do now. I got my two radio receivers from a Pyongyang store where you could get just about anything: cigarettes, beer, clothing, shoes. The only things they didn’t have were products made in South Korea—and, of course, they only accepted hard currency. Even foreigners shopped there. Since the sale of radio receivers wasn’t as closely monitored as might be expected, I was able to get away with registering one and paying hush money on the second. Listening to South Korean radio had to be done with extreme caution. The poor soundproofing of most North Korean dwellings could easily give us away. To avoid being overheard, my fellow listeners and I took the radio and buried ourselves three or four at a time under a mound of blankets. Only the antenna remained visible.
The other challenge was avoiding static. The signal was always clearest between 11:00 P.M. and 5:00 A.M. We liked listening to the Christian programs on the Korean Broadcasting System. The message of love and respect for one’s fellow man was sweet as honey to us. It was so different from what we were used to hearing. In North Korea, the state-run radio and television, newspapers, teachers, and even comic strips only tried to fill us with hate—for the imperialists, the class enemies, the traitors, and who knows what else! We could also tune in to the Voice of America and catch up on the international news from which we had been severed for so long. We hungered for a discourse to break the monopoly of lies. In North Korea, all reality is filtered through a single mind-set. Listening to the radio gave us the words we needed to express our dissatisfaction. Every program, each new discovery, helped us tear a little freer from the enveloping web of deception. Knowledge that there was a counterpoint to official reality was already a kind of escape, one that could exhilarate as well as confuse. It is difficult to explain, for example, the emotions we felt on hearing it demonstrated, proof positive, that the North had actually started the Korean War, not the American imperialists, as we had always been told.
Radio programs from the South made it possible for us to sharpen our criticisms of Kim Il-sung’s regime. We had long been aware of all its shortcomings, from corruption to repression, from the camps to food shortages, from its ravishment of the population’s work ethic to its obscene wastefulness, most apparent in its sumptuous birthday celebrations in honor of our two idols, father and son. We had plenty of evidence by which to judge the regime—and judge it harshly. What we lacked—what the radio provided us—were the connective elements we needed to tie it all together. The programs furnished us with an overview of the system as a whole: its origins, the reasons behind its current difficulties, the absurdity of its official boasting of self-sufficiency in light of its pleading for international aid. I think my friends and I were proud to be in the know. I wanted very much to tell my uncle about what I had discovered, but I didn’t dare; while I knew he would love the South Korean songs, I feared he would forbid me to listen.
There was still a chance my activities might place him at risk, in spite of his ignorance. For everyone’s sake, my main objective would have to be parrying as much of the danger as possible. My friend An-hyuk, who lived in a neighboring county, had also gotten wind of the investigation the Security Force was conducting on me. According to him the agents were proceeding slowly, hoping to throw a dragnet around the entire subculture of illicit auditors. An-hyuk, who also listened to South Korean radio, was facing the same danger I was. Our backs were to the wall: we could either wait for the Security Force to pick us up, or we could try to escape. The options were equally dangerous, but the second presented a glimmer of hope. An-hyuk had sneaked into China once before. On his way back, however, he was arrested for illegal border crossing and sent to Yodok, where he spent the next year and a half. That’s how we first met. Later, after we were both released, we kept in touch by mail. It was in one of his carefully coded letters that he revealed that we were in trouble and needed to talk. Our code was simple but effective: we wrote the exact opposite of what we truly meant to say.
In the critical letter, An-hyuk kept repeating that “everything was going really well,” that “things were looking up,” and so on. He also announced the forthcoming “wedding ceremony of our friends.” The reference was oblique, but I understood. We got together and, assessing the situation, agreed we had to escape. But where to? Reaching the South wasn’t our primary goal. We simply wanted to avoid the camps any way we could. I had, however, entertained the thought of moving abroad before and had put some money aside for that purpose. The time for action had come; it was almost a question of life and death. If they got us this time, we would be going to a hard-labor camp.
If our plan were to succeed, it would have to remain secret. Even our families would have to be kept in the dark, and telling friends was entirely out of the question. Fortunately, because I was working in the distribution of beans and corn, people were used to seeing me leave town for several days at a time. Our departure thus would not be a cause for immediate suspicion or concern. Questions would eventually arise, of course, but by that time we hoped to be long gone.
It was difficult for me to go this way. I was leaving behind my family and a young girl with whom I was in love. I had met her in Yodok. Her family, who was released when we were, benefited from the aid of a grandmother in Japan. Out of the camp, she had blossomed into a beautiful girl, and I was always thinking about her; yet my shyness and constant moving about made a relationship difficult, and I never declared myself. In the North it’s difficult to go steady with a woman, because that sort of intimacy is viewed poorly. So I couldn’t even tell her of our plan. What if she turned out to be against it? What if she started telling people?
An-hyuk, for his own part, had been living a relatively happy, independent life for some time, so his parents wouldn’t notice his departure for at least a few days. Leaving with him gave me hope. We were friends and trusted each other like brothers. With him by my side, the adventure didn’t seem quite so impossible. Had he not already been to China? It’s true that he had come back between two border guards, but the experience had surely taught him something. Moreover, a friend of his who had managed a successful escape had let him know that things would be much easier once we were in China.
What I brought to the partnership was a perfect knowledge of the train system and the route to the border zone. In the period following my release from camp, I often took the Pyongyang-Musan line to visit family, who lived up in the north. To avoid any problems—my identification card noted my internment at Yodok—all I had to do was ply the conductors with bribes. When one asked for ID, I told him I didn’t have any, but that my parents were Japanese and that I had some yen in my wallet. “I need to travel,” I explained, “and if you’ll permit, I’ll give you what you need.” We would go back to his compartment, chat, smoke my Japanese cigarettes. I always dressed impeccably, wearing all-Japanese clothes, and knew exactly how to make the conductor drool: “What else do you need?” I asked. “I’ll get it for you next time.” It was almost too easy. Rules, however, needed to be observed. I couldn’t distribute the gifts haphazardly; they had to be rationed in small, constant doses, so that the receiver would remember and think about them constantly.
I once gave a conductor a Japanese tape recorder. He was very happy, and we began chatting like old friends. When he threatened a woman who was trafficking something, I interceded on her behalf. “She seems really poor,” I said. “You should let her be. . . .” And he did. Another conductor, to whom I spoke of my imprisonment, was outraged to learn the cause of my family’s travails. But I tried to get him off that line of thinking. It could get dangerous. I said it was just “bad luck; the important thing now is to live well. . . .”
The conductors were generally a corrupt bunch, but that gave them a human side. They were so hungry for our gifts that we could count on them. They always gave perfect advice about who the obliging conductors were on the various trains, in which cars they could be found, and what stations we should pass through. Seiko watches were the most sought-after gifts. My relatives in Japan had brought me about ten of them, enough to satisfy quite a few conductors. I even became friendly with their chief, who told me in advance what number train I should take. He then gave word to his subordinates, so that I would be sure to have no difficulties. Not only would the conductor not check my ticket, he would usually invite me into his compartment so that we might share a drink together. If we craved a snack, he would go out for a food run. Stepping into the neighboring compartment, he would ask, “Who does this package belong to?” A trembling passenger would raise a hand.
The packages often contained food smuggled in from China.
“Close your eyes, comrade conductor. Take a little for yourself.”
The controller would accept his share and bring it back to our compartment so that we might continue with our visit.
Thanks to the money I received from my Japanese relatives, I realized that, despite its uncompromising allegiance to communism, North Korea longed for one thing only: to live as well as Japan. When the country was doing better than it is now—in the 1960s and 1970s, for example—the important thing was to be close to power—and, yes, to wear a Seiko watch. Yet power today is a hollow concept in North Korea. So while the Seiko is still important, most people would rather have a gold ring or a gold tooth than have power. The corruption I have been describing is rather petty. The problem is that it is everywhere, and the higher up you go the less petty it becomes. I once met a former political prisoner who, like many of the wealthy former Japanese residents, had been sent to a camp with his entire family. His father died there. Later, his mother, who was the only descendant of an extraordinarily rich businessman, came into a colossal fortune of some 4 billion yen, or $40 million! The money was deposited into a Chosen Soren bank and largely siphoned off into North Korean coffers, but what remained was enough to transform the family’s existence, removing all the obstacles that ordinarily impinge on average North Koreans. After signing a document discouraging her family in Japan from taking legal action against the Chosen Soren, the mother and her family were set free.
Never again would they have to worry about things like traveling papers, because security agents would deliver them right to their door. Agents scurried to them under every imaginable pretext, vying for their little crumb of fortune. My friend’s house in Nampo had every Japanese appliance you could think of. And while his family was not allowed to live in Pyongyang, it did own two Toyotas with which to visit the capital. My friend once ran over a group of soldiers while speeding along at seventy miles per hour. He was arrested and sentenced to death, but was released after serving three months in prison! With the aid of refrigerators, color televisions, and bulging envelopes, he was able to bribe the judge and get the case dismissed. In time he grew cynical and contemptuous, and couldn’t stand being deprived of anything. He nevertheless did me the honor of keeping me as his friend and was responsible for introducing me to Coca-Cola. That first swallow was simply wonderful. I had a cold. I was cured almost instantly.