Our departure was set for September 14. The captain planned everything in great detail, because carrying it out wouldn’t be easy. To get to the ship, we would need to cross a bridge that spanned an arm of the sea. All along the bridge were stationed Chinese police and customs officers. Fortunately, “Honduran” crews were treated with relative laxity, their papers receiving only perfunctory examination. When our captain’s men went broadside for drinks, he borrowed two of their IDs for An-hyuk and me, and also picked us up some sailor clothes. It was time to head for the ship.
The captain walked ahead with us close on his heels. I looked straight in front of me and forced a smile, but my heart was beating through my shirt and my legs felt like rubber. It only took thirty seconds to cross the bridge, but it seemed an eternity. I tried to show my card as quickly and nonchalantly as possible, but one of the policemen bent forward, apparently trying to get a better look. I almost passed out. I knew I was wavering between life and death. I no longer saw the turnstile ahead, and I felt like I had entered a movie that was in slow motion. But the policeman seemed to lose his train of thought. For no reason I could see, he suddenly straightened up and looked past our group. My wobbly legs resumed their march. My head felt completely empty, weightless.... Thinking back on it, I’m sure that policeman was not the least bit interested in either me or the photo. At the time, though, I thought the game was up.
Once we were on the ship, the next step was finding a place to hide. An hour before a ship’s departure for another country, Chinese police come aboard to check for clandestine passengers. They count the sailors, double-check their IDs, and search the ship from bow to stern. To avoid discovery, An-hyuk and I slipped into the heating oil tank, where we waded up to our hips in unctuous liquid. Only the captain and the lieutenant knew we were on board. We stayed down there for three hours, enveloped in the din of machinery and breathing in noxious fumes, until the ship finally pulled out of Chinese territorial waters. After luxuriating in a series of long showers to wash out the smell of oil, we went up on deck. We were approaching the end of our journey. As when crossing the Yalu River, again I was assailed by memories of my family and my connections to the North. I was worried that Japanese or Korean papers might write about my case. What then would happen to my family? I tried to take comfort in the fact that whatever damage there might be was probably already done. There was no turning back. And I’d won on at least two counts: I was safe and sound, and I would be able to tell the world about life in the North Korean camps.
When we finally reached international waters, the captain put out a call to all South Korean ships in the vicinity. He thought this would be less dangerous than trying to land us in Japan—his first port of call—though there was a chance his radio appeal could be intercepted by a North Korean vessel. Shortly after the message was sent, we saw a military ship approach. Day had turned to night by then and it was difficult to identify its markings. Was it from the North or the South? Our anxiety rose. After pulling to within a few dozen yards, the ship suddenly switched on its searchlights and trained them directly on us. Someone then got on the loudspeaker and demanded that our ship stop and identify itself. It was the South Korean ship we had called for! A couple of their sailors were invited aboard to speak with our captain in private. When they were done, the South Korean sailors signaled for us to follow them back to their ship. We thanked our smuggler with great emotion, tears in our eyes. The man had saved our lives.
Once on board, the captain of the South Korean vessel asked us a few brief questions—age, name, profession. He wrote down our responses, then relayed them to Seoul via radio. We were then taken to a cabin that looked like a fancy hotel room, color television included. All evening officers came around to meet us, offer words of encouragement, and ask about our plans. The warmth of our reception took us aback. We had long since weaned ourselves from the force-fed lies of the North, but such geniality on the part of “puppets of American imperialism” nevertheless was hard to fathom. We were later joined by the ship’s captain, who wanted to question us further about our itinerary, the places where we had lived, our work and professional training. Afterward, we followed his suggestion to try to rest and relax. We turned on South Korean television for the first time in our lives.
Suddenly, the program we were watching was interrupted for a special bulletin: two young men from North Korea were on their way to the South after having passed through a “third country”—as China was conventionally called. Once the surprise passed, we savored uncensored television, surfing channels and sampling various programs. We had a minder with us in the cabin, a young man who was doing his obligatory military service, but his presence was not in the least oppressive. The voyage was pleasant, with calm seas and generous blue skies. Food was brought to our cabin, and between meals, we were served snacks of beer and cake.
At one point the ship stopped for several hours. I imagine it was awaiting word from Seoul about how to proceed. If so, the orders finally came and, three hours later, as night was falling, we arrived at the military port of Inchon, not far from Seoul. There were many soldiers waiting for us at the docks, along with several men in civilian clothing—South Korean security agents, no doubt. They took An-hyuk and me by the arms and led us into separate cars. I sat in the middle of the backseat with a burly guard on either side. We drove off toward Seoul, stopping at an ordinary-looking detached house. A lavish spread was waiting for us on the dining-room table, and before moving on to serious business, we were invited to indulge. Afterward, An-hyuk and I were taken to separate rooms and given long interrogations. The agents apparently wanted to make sure our stories jibed. They asked me the same question over and over again. At one point, the agent who was interrogating me said, “You see, I’ve asked you this question three times in three different ways, and each time you’ve given me exactly the same answer. If you’re lying, you’re very smart about it!” He handed me a sheet of paper and asked me to draw a map of Yodok. I did as I was told, trying to remember every detail and devoting particular attention to Ipsok, the executions site, and to the mountains. The agent seemed a little surprised. He gave me a long look, then pulled a photograph out of his desk drawer. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was my camp! Spotting my hut, I let out a cry. The agent lowered his head. He was beginning to trust me. I then identified the other structures for him: the bachelor’s barracks, the distillery. . . . This went on for a quite a while. I told him everything I knew. The atmosphere in the room had changed completely since the start of the questioning. The agent was relaxed, his forced geniality had turned to genuine good humor, and I confided in him with perfect trust. The debriefing lasted a week. It was conducted by two agents who relieved each other at two-hour intervals. If I needed a break, I could go to sleep in an adjoining room. Then we’d start in again. The agents stayed in the building around the clock, just like me.
At the end of that week, I was allowed to leave the office. Though the interrogation had left me feeling dazed and empty, I understood why my story interested the authorities and thought it normal that they wanted to confirm its veracity. Though the interrogation was over, I continued to live in the same house and to take my meals with the security agents and their directors. At the end of the first week, the head of the security service came up to shake my hand.
“You’ve cleared the first hurdle,” he said. “But there will be others. You’ve come from a long way off, you know. . . .” He paused, then concluded with a note of particular sincerity: “Of all the renegades I’ve met, you have suffered among the most.”
In time, my interaction with the agents grew less formal and my schedule less constricted. The process lasted approximately six months. The subsequent interrogations—or conversations, really—became progressively shorter and less frequent. The questions shifted from the camp to my years in the Yodok gun and my work in distribution. I also gave many interviews and began to study English as a diversion. After the initial interrogation, I was also allowed to spend time with An-hyuk. We’d sit around chatting, smoking cigarettes, and reading the day’s paper. At the end of three months, we were moved into the same room.
Our initial anxieties—after twenty-five years in North Korea, it’s no small matter to be moved into a South Korean security office—lessened. The even-tempered agents never ceased to astonish me. They were made of different stuff than the ones I had encountered in the North. One of my two interrogators in particular seemed to develop a strong liking for me. He often brought me a book, some money, or a little something special to eat. Even if it was part of his job, a true bond developed, a bond of man to man. We’ve remained friends to this day. In time, I was granted authorization to leave the interrogation center—with a companion, of course. He showed me the famous sites of Seoul: City Hall, Namdaemun, the banks of the Han River, the parks, Itaewon. One evening, we went up the Namsam Television Tower and saw all of Seoul lit up below us. The view filled me with wonder.
What most struck me, however, was the way people led their lives. Everyone seemed free to do as they wished. No system organized their movements and activities. I have to admit that it rather worried me at first. This sort of society just couldn’t last; it could never face a crisis. I later realized that this only seemed like disorder. A pervading logic governed people’s interactions. Though the principle of everybody for himself reigned supreme, people here appeared honest; they thought about others and shared common values. Seoul was teeming with cars. I’d never seen so many. I was amazed to learn that most of them were actually manufactured in Korea itself. This was never mentioned in the North. I remember the pride I felt at this discovery—my first feeling of pride for South Korea. I eventually became enamored of that sprawling city, with its millions of inhabitants, its forest of modern skyscrapers, its dense traffic, its bustling life and nocturnal energy.
Whenever a renegade arrives in Seoul, a press conference is called. Our case was no exception. A month after our arrival, we were brought to the Seoul Press Center to be interviewed by several dozen journalists. They began with typical questions about how we made it to South Korea, life in the camp, and so forth. But then they turned to the agents to inquire when and how we were found, what instructions we had been given prior to this interview, and whether we had been guaranteed freedom of speech. It was a terrible shock. I had been through so many awful things, and these people, who had lived their whole lives swaddled in perfect comfort, were looking skeptically down their noses at me! Clearly, my address was unfavorable to the North. Clearly, our testimony about the camps and the repressiveness of the Pyongyang regime would bolster the South’s claim that it was the legitimate representative of the Korean nation. But so what? Did telling the truth necessarily mean having to oppose the government? Was I supposed to declare I had been manipulated by the South’s Security Service? Was the capitalist South always supposed to be in the wrong?
I found the journalist from the newspaper Hangyore particularly irritating. What place did his skepticism leave for the victims? Millions of people were dying or suffering from hunger, an entire population was being deprived of its freedom, and his only concern was our credibility. We had risked our lives in fleeing. We had risked them in the camp. What more did we need to prove? The security agents never whispered a single word in our ears. When I had asked them for advice about how to conduct myself during the press conference, one of them suggested that I say whatever I feel—“only you may not want to tell them everything,” he added, “or they might not believe you.” We were anything but manipulated. The skepticism and insinuations of our interviewers left An-hyuk deeply shaken. He and a couple of the agents had tears in their eyes; this wasn’t looking anything like a press conference rigged for propaganda purposes. Even some of the journalists were moved.
I decided to speak.
“If you don’t want to believe us, go to the North! Do you think we risked our lives so we could come here and lie?”
A huge crowd was at the press conference. Never in my life had I spoken in front of so many people. Nonplussed by all the cameras and lights, I expressed only a fraction of what I wanted to. The next day, our story was in all the papers. The television and radio stations called us for interviews, and the Japanese and American press were interested. In time we got use to telling our story. Yet by repeating it so often, I occasionally felt I was trading my experience for a story that was no longer entirely my own.