Though even more anxious and withdrawn, Grandfather remained the central character of the family. His pronounced eyebrows, round, sparkling eyes, and stentorian voice always enthralled me. So, too, did the respect shown him by Pyongyang’s Party cadres. And yet this never got in the way of our intimacy. Our Sunday walks, in tones of high secrecy, he would tell me stories about his former days in Kyoto: about the jewelry shop where he stayed up all night filling his first orders, the rice warehouses he guarded against envious competitors, the stunning success of his gaming rooms; and the fortunes that grew and fell there in a matter of minutes. These stories were a source of constant enchantment for me. I listened, mesmerized, to their architect and hero, my grandfather. I loved him, and never could I have imagined that our conversations and Sunday walks might one day come to an end.
Yet he disappeared. It was in July of 1977. One night he didn’t come home from work. The police said they knew nothing. The heads of my grandfather’s department, whom my grandmother anxiously queried, finally told us he had left on a business trip, an urgent matter, they said. The order had come from the Party, and he had to decide right away. “But come back next week and you’ll have some news,” they assured her. “There’s no need to worry.”
My grandmother had her doubts about this business trip. Her husband was not the type to leave without warning. A week later, the authorities told her to keep waiting, but she was unable to restrain herself and went back to my grandfather’s office. The reception she met with only deepened her fears. Everyone seemed embarrassed by the mere mention of her husband’s name and avoided talking about him. The same wall of nervous silence soon cropped up everywhere Grandmother went.
My parents suspected that the Security Force was behind the mysterious disappearance, but they dared not admit this even to themselves. In the preceding months a number of their acquaintances had vanished in similar ways. Yet the family preferred to believe—my grandmother more than anyone—that there was no comparison between my grandfather and those others, who must have plotted against the state or committed some other grave offense. None of us was willing to face the possibility that the police had taken him away from us. We knew that Grandfather was never at a loss for words and that he often criticized Party bureaucrats and their management methods rather too sharply. We also knew that he rarely showed up at Party meetings and rallies, but then again, Grandmother attended enough for two! And had he not always been an honest citizen, entrusting his all to the Party? Had he not handed over his immense fortune upon arriving from Japan? Had he not given the Party everything, down to his Volvo?
A few weeks after Grandfather’s disappearance, I was playing on the riverbank when several of my friends came to tell me that a group of people were at my house. Puzzled, I got up and ran to our apartment.
Traditionally, people take their shoes off on entering a Korean home. Not doing so is a sign of disrespect to your host. To my astonishment, I noticed that though the living room was full of people, the entrance hall had only the usual number of shoes. What did this mean? I wanted to move forward, but there were so many people in the room it was hard to maneuver. Apart from my father, mother, grandmother, and sister, there were a number of other people whom I had never seen before. The only one missing was my uncle, who lived with us but was away for a few days at a professional conference in south Hamkyung Province. Who were these other people? I greeted my parents with a big wave, but they, who were ordinarily so happy to see me, responded strangely, remaining distant, like condescending adults who hadn’t time for such trifles. My mother sighed and kept on repeating (as though someone would answer!), “But what is happening to us? But what is happening to us?” I pushed forward, determined to see what was going on: three uniformed men were rifling through our things as a fourth took notes. What extraordinary event was this? And how could they keep their shoes on? That was what shocked me the most, but when I tried to tell my mother, she didn’t even answer me.
Our apartment consisted of four bedrooms and a living room. The smallest bedroom stored wrapped gifts my grandparents had requested from friends and family who had visited from Japan over the years. The cache of jewelry, clothes, and watches was to be presented at the wedding of my third uncle—whenever that was going to be. (It is customary for Korean families to begin preparing for their children’s wedding far—often years—in advance.) The room also contained several cameras and various darkroom materials that my father used in his work. These treasures greatly excited the security agents—for these were who our four visitors were. In the past, my parents had been “encouraged” to offer one of the cameras as a gift to the state but had always found a pretext for refusing. This time the agents were simply going to help themselves. My father later told me about the agents’ secret councils in the corner of the room, about their mock indignation at finding the wedding gifts—as though we were smugglers or harborers of stolen goods—and about the spark of covetousness and joy in their eyes as they divvied up the loot in plain view of my distraught parents.
The agents then pressed on through the rest of the apartment, three searching, while the fourth continued to take notes. The inventory progressed slowly, and I soon grew bored of a situation that didn’t really involve me, since the gentlemen seemed not the least interested in my aquariums. I went and got my sister, Mi-ho, and we started to play, indifferent to what might come next. We were soon running around, romping in the shambles left by the search. I started to jump up and down on my parents’ big Japanese bed and encouraged my sister to do the same. My father noticed but made no attempt to stop this ordinarily forbidden game. Heartened, I jumped ever higher, until what was bound to happen, happened: I broke a mattress spring, or a lattice, I no longer remember which. My sister and I froze. A boundary had been crossed, we knew that. And yet Father still said nothing. I don’t know what my sister thought of that paternal abdication, but it left me feeling very strange. The order of things had changed. I was not yet worried, but I began to feel a certain malaise, the shape and cause of which I could not altogether comprehend. Perhaps this is why a hole persists there in my memory.
Yet I remember perfectly the moment I first heard pronounced the name of “Yodok.” One of the agents had begun rifling through my mother’s lingerie, and seeing her private things tossed across the room, my mother allowed her voice to rise. Outraged, the man with the notebook jumped to his feet, ordering her to shut up, then pulled out a paper from which he read out loud. According to the document, my grandfather had committed “a crime of high treason,” the consequence of which was that his family—all of us there gathered, that is—was “immediately” to present itself at the secure zone in Yodok, a canton of which I had never heard. Everyone around me seemed to go dead. There was a long silence, then tears, and hands taking hold of one another. Clearly reaping pleasure from the effect of his words, the leader ordered his men to resume their work. The agents turned the place inside out, going through the bedding, the clothes, the mattresses, the kitchen utensils. I looked on bewildered, unable to understand what they could be looking for among the bowls and the plates and the pots and even my chest of toys. The inventory wound to a close around three in the morning. The agents performed their work according to well-defined rules—of their own invention—with a small cut going to the government, and a bigger cut going to them. My father’s photo equipment and Omega wristwatch, my mother’s and grandmother’s jewelry, my uncle’s wedding presents, and the family’s Japanese color television set were all shared among the agents. No more than one item out of ten was left to the government.
There is one moment that particularly stands out in my memory of that night. My grandmother was having a face-off with the agents. They were trying to force her to sign a document, but she objected, pointing insistently at certain passages. The agents offered some perfunctory explanations, their tone alternating between calm restraint and outbursts of angry shouting. Suddenly I saw her reach for the pen holder and sign the paper. The next thing that happened surprised me even more: she had hardly finished signing when the men grabbed her and locked her up in one of the rooms!
When sunrise came and I learned we’d soon be leaving for that unknown place whose mention had so jolted my parents, I was not overly upset. I thought of it as a move to the country, an adventure, something to bring a little excitement to our lives. Truth be told, the idea actually pleased me. My one real concern was finding a way to bring my fish collection along. In some respects, our departure for Yodok resembled a move. We weren’t being sent to the camps as criminals but as relatives of a criminal, which meant we were treated with a little more clemency. My grandfather had been picked up from work and taken away to a hard-labor camp without even the chance to pack a bag. His fate was like that of many people arrested in the USSR and Nazi Germany, whose history I was later able to read. We, at least, were allowed to bring a minimum of furniture, clothes, and even food.
From a certain perspective, our case could be seen as one of simple banishment, but as we would soon discover, the barbed wire, the huts, the malnutrition, and the mind-quashing work left little doubt that it really was a concentration camp. The camp’s policy of maintaining the cohesion of the family unit merely testifies to the resilience—even in a supposedly Communist country—of the Confucian tradition. This policy does not, however, alter the basic nature of the camp. The stated purpose of sending us away as a family was to reeducate us through work and study. As noncriminals who were contaminated by the reactionary ideology of the criminal in our midst, we were ordered to a place built specifically for the “redeemable” cases. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The search completed, my parents began packing with the help of several employees from my grandfather’s office. They had arrived early in the morning, conscripted, perhaps, by the security agents looking to hasten our departure. My grandfather’s former colleagues might have been pleased to lend my family a helping hand, but it is unlikely that the gesture was a spontaneous one. Showing solidarity with a criminal family was dangerous. Indeed, since the arrival of security only one person had dared drop in for a visit. That one exception was an old lady who lived on our floor. She knocked on our door, then slipped her slight little figure in among the packing boxes. She smiled at everyone, greeted the agents politely, and generally did her best to blend into the wallpaper. She then glided over to my grandmother and whispered in her ear. “Be strong, dear. Have courage.... Don’t ever give up. You have no reason to blame yourself, and you know your husband did nothing wrong. And a final bit of advice: when you’re in a difficult spot, think about your children and your grandchildren and you’ll make it.”
As our bundles were being loaded into the five large crates allotted us, I saw my sister take hold of her favorite doll. This gave me an idea: I hurriedly grabbed one of my aquariums and stocked it with a selection of my most beautiful fish. I then hugged the aquarium fast against me, just as I saw my sister do with her doll. One of the agents noticed me and said that taking “that”—gesturing to the aquarium with his chin—was out of the question. The brutality of the order, handed down by someone I didn’t even know, threw me into a raging fit. I ranted and raved, yelled and bawled so much the agent finally relented. My swell of tears gradually abated, but the fate of the fish left behind still worried me. When I was first told of the strange goings-on at my house, several of my more treacherous friends said I would probably be sent to “a nasty place” and so would do well to give my fish away to my pals. At the time I hadn’t taken their offer seriously, but now, on the cusp of my departure, I regretted it.
A truck was stationed in front our building. The men began loading the crates and the few small furnishings the agents didn’t want for themselves: a low table, some kitchen utensils, and a 125-pound bag of rice, the maximum the camp would allow. The rattle of the engine, the lamentations of some, and the orders of others began waking the neighbors. One by one, lights came on in the surrounding apartments. I could see people staring from behind their windowpanes. Some worked up the courage to come down for a closer look. The gathering crowd kept a reserved distance, but it wasn’t the sort of assembly the agents liked much, and they now did their best to move everything along more quickly. A minor panic ensued when my father bolted back to the apartment to fetch a few last-minute things. That reminded me of my favorite comic books. Like all the kids, I loved the story about the battle of the hedgehog army, in which the hedgehogs and squirrels join forces to defeat the wolves, rats, foxes, and eagles, all representative of the horrible world of capitalism. I begged the security agent—I think he was the same one who had given way to my earlier temper tantrum—to let me go get it. But by now he’d had enough of my antics and screamed for me to get in the truck. This time I was scared and obeyed without protest. So much for the hedgehog army. At least I had my favorite fish.
My family climbed one by one into the back of the truck, except for my mother, who, to my great surprise, remained standing on the sidewalk. I still remember the immense sadness in her face, streaming with tears. “You’re not coming?” I asked. “No, not right away, my love. I’ll join you soon.” In a hurry to wrap things up, the agents brusquely confirmed my mother’s words and kept everyone going about their business. Reassured, I squeezed myself up against my aquarium, which I topped with a plank of wood to keep the water from sloshing out. After a final good-bye, my attention turned to the novelty of riding in an automobile, a rare event in the life of a private North Korean citizen.
My poor mother! It must have been terrible for her. Much as she tried, she couldn’t hide her sadness. Yet her little nine-year-old son had understood almost nothing. He had climbed into the truck quite happily, his fish pressed to his chest. His mother didn’t know so many years would pass before she would see her son again. The daughter of a “heroic family,” she was spared a trip to the camp where her children and husband spent the next ten years. Shortly after our imprisonment, the Security Force made her get a divorce and terminate all ties with our family of “traitors.” She was never asked her opinion, never even gave her signature. She suffered greatly and longed for her lost family throughout the long years of our imprisonment. I later learned she had repeatedly appealed to the Security Force for permission to join us in the camp, but her requests were seen as aberrant and never granted.
We started out just as the day was breaking. The truck was a Tsir, the powerful Soviet-built machine that was standard equipment for hauling away prisoners. The Koreans called it “the crow,” a symbol of death, for though white remains the traditional color of mourning in Korea, black is the color of funerals. It was a covered truck, and during the first leg of the trip, my sister and I were not allowed to peek outside. Once we were out in the country, however, the agents let us watch at the passing scenery as much as we wanted. The ride was bumpy, traversing rutted, packed-earth roads. I was holding up fine myself—my one real concern was keeping the water from sloshing out of the aquarium—but Mi-ho started vomiting. Grandmother found her a plastic bag, then spread blankets on the truck floor for her to lie on. Our crates and furnishings were in the forward part of the bed. Two armed security agents stood guarding the back.
At one point my grandmother asked the agents what they intended to do with her youngest son, the one absent member of the household. She said he was innocent and that they had no reason to arrest him. The agents agreed. Now that I think of it, Grandmother must have been pretty desperate. She must have known the guards were powerless to decide anything. All she was looking for was a little consolation, and in some way, perhaps she found it. Yet when our questions turned to the place we were being taken to, the guards claimed ignorance. They did try to cheer us up, though, and even showed a little benevolence, but they swore up and down they didn’t even know what a camp looked like. “All I know,” said one of them, “is that it’s not too bad a place. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
Keeping us calm was apparently the guards’ main responsibility. It was common knowledge that people in our situation often preferred to take their own lives. The guards wanted none of that. Suicide was a manner of disobeying, of showing that one had lost faith in the future traced out by the Party. The soldiers’ good cheer was intended to preserve the utopian myth long enough to get us to our destination. But it did little to stanch my grandmother’s crying or to keep my father from sinking into morose silence. Was he thinking about his wife? Remembering the house in Kyoto? His happier days learning photography with his friends? Grandmother’s unshakeable desire to leave Japan and return to the Fatherland of the Revolution? Everything had gone from bad to worse since that decision in which he hardly had a word. The arrest must have seemed to him like the latest in a series of steps on the descent to hell.
He was sitting in front of me, hollow-eyed, lost in thought. A little farther on, the truck came to a stop and one of the agents jumped out. A minute later he was back, escorting an elderly woman around my grandmother’s age. She was well dressed, all in black, without luggage. We all figured she was an acquaintance or relative of the guard, hitching a ride. She was silent at first, but after about fifteen minutes she started talking and then never stopped. It turned out she, too, was on her way to Yodok, her story running parallel to our own—from her decision to emigrate from Kyoto to the precursory disappearance of her husband, accused of espionage. She had no children and was now entirely on her own, unable to understand why she was being taken away. When she started criticizing the Party, the two agents, who had been standing silently by, ordered her to shut up. But she continued, only less loudly, and the guards, whose only concern was avoiding problems, pretended not to hear.
“How will I survive there without children or a husband?” she kept asking.
“If we’re sent to the same camp, you can count on us: we’ll stick together,” responded my grandmother.
The woman thanked her, her nerves a little soothed. She’d packed twenty hard-boiled eggs for the journey and now began handing them out to everyone in the truck, including the security agents. When I got my egg, I crumbled up the yoke to feed it to my fish. But as I prepared to sprinkle the yellow crumbs onto the surface of the aquarium, my grandmother slapped me hard across the face and ordered me to eat. It was the first time she had ever raised her hand against me. I was devastated but did as I was told, eating the powdered yoke I had designated for my beloved fish. The hours passed slowly. When I grew bored, I climbed up on the crates and looked out through a little Plexiglas window. But most of the time I stayed seated, stunned by the memory of that slap and grieving the death of several of my fish. I wanted terribly to cry but fought back tears with all my strength. I covered the aquarium again and held it tightly in my arms, looking straight ahead, forcing myself to think of nothing. The dirt road continued to climb through twists and hairpin turns. The old strategic route, originally built by the Japanese to connect the eastern and western parts of North Korea, was known to be extremely dangerous. With all the bumps and turns, I, too, lost my stomach. Finally, toward midday we reached Wolwangnyong, the King’s Pass, 3,000 feet above tree line. North Koreans also call it the Pass of Tears, because it’s the last stretch of road on the way to Yodok. It was two o’clock before we arrived at the perimeter of the camp. When the truck came to a halt, none of the adults wanted to look outside. Over the last several hours they’d had plenty of opportunity to get used to the landscape, but Lord only knew what they would see if they looked out now. They didn’t move, so I didn’t move either, and we all just sat there, waiting for something to happen.