The two security agents climbed down from the back of the truck. Outside, I could hear them whispering to other people. In a moment, one of the guards returned and asked for the passports of the adults and the birth certificates of the children. He took the documents and disappeared. Twenty minutes passed under heavy silence, then the guards returned. They climbed back into the truck and we slowly set off again. Curiosity was getting the better of me, and encountering no objection from the guards, I climbed up to look through the peephole.
In front of us, soldiers were swinging open a gate. On the archway above it I could make out the words, “Border Patrol of the Korean People, Unit 2915.” The sign didn’t impress me much at the time, but I now realize it was yet another link in the interminable chain of lies, a way of camouflaging the camp to look like an army barracks, distracting the attention of the outside world. A crude lie it was, considering how far Yodok is from the border. The gateway was the only opening in a long concrete wall. Above it rose two watchtowers. Farther off, the walls gave way to a series of steep bluffs, fringed with barbed wire deep into the horizon. The view reminded me of movies I had seen in school about detention centers built by the Japanese during their occupation.
Not far from the gate stood a guard station equipped with cannons. I was looking around in wide-eyed curiosity when the truck stopped again. The gate closed behind us, and a group of guards began walking toward the truck. Their uniforms were reminiscent of those worn by the People’s Army, only they were a slightly lighter shade of khaki, and their four-pocket jackets extended straight to their pants. Our guards provided them with the spelling our of names, then we set off again. The next time we stopped was a quarter of an hour later. Outside, there was a great bustle; I could hear voices, whispering. It was like a welcoming committee had gathered in our honor. One of our guards then climbed down from the truck and started shouting abuses. How brutally he spoke! How dare he address people so crudely? The guard fired off so many orders and insults, I grew panicked and began shaking. My father had to put his hand on my shoulder to calm me down.
The guards then pulled the canvas cover off the truck and we all stood up. I was still holding my aquarium in my arms. I had the vague impression that this was to be a decisive moment. The canvas was like a theater curtain that had been prematurely drawn. A new scene, indeed a new act, had begun, and none of us were ready for it. I would have liked to know more about the roles we were expected to play. But I didn’t have long to inquire because the men and women standing around the truck were already stepping forward for a closer look. How frightfully filthy they all were, dressed like beggars, their hair caked and matted with dirt. Panic took hold of me again. Who were these people? Were they the same people I had just heard making all the commotion? Could it really be they whom the guards had addressed so brutally? To my astonishment, a number of them recognized my grandmother and came forward to greet her. As we stepped down from the truck, one old lady—a former friend, I suppose—ran up and gave her a hug, and for a long time the two women stood holding each other’s hands, sighing deeply and crying.
“I was so worried when you disappeared,” said my grandmother.
“No one told you?”
“We heard nothing.”
“And now you’re here, like me! After all we did for the Party!”
As I stood watching, two boys came up to me. I thought they were my age, but it turned out they were actually two years older.
“The camp is no place to grow big and strong,” said one of them. “A lot of kids stop growing here.”
The adults went on trading news and whispering in each other’s ears, holding back the tears as best they could. What a sight these people made with their threadbare rags, their overgrown hair, their filth. How out of keeping their appearance seemed with the civility of their manner and their politeness toward the new arrivals. The welcome would probably have gone on for some time had not the guards intervened. They reestablished order in a wink, commanding all the prisoners back to their barracks and work details. That put an end to my somewhat abstract fascination, bringing me back to reality and my all-important fish. Alas, half of them were already dead. At a loss for what else to do, I started counting the victims. The few prisoners who had managed to tarry stepped closer and stared silently at the extraordinary spectacle standing among them: a child in the middle of the camp, crying softly over an aquarium in which floated, stomach up, the most fantastical assortment of exotic fish.
In a moment, a man who appeared to be the warden cut through the small crowd. “These things are going to stink to high heaven,” he bellowed. “Go dump them somewhere far away!” He then turned to my parents and pointed toward a group of huts about a hundred yards off. “That’s where you’re living,” he said, gesturing for us to follow. We had hardly walked ten paces when we were stopped by the sight of a man running toward us at full speed. It was my third uncle. He had already been in the camp for a week. The Security Force had picked him up at his conference. Before our arrival, he had been living in the bachelor’s quarters, a very peculiar dwelling, of which more later. My grandmother—though she had hoped her youngest boy might escape the camps—felt a great joy at suddenly seeing him there, and as she kissed him, warm tears ran down her face.
We approached the designated hut. My father pushed the wooden door in silence. We joined him, and what we saw left us stunned. This was where we were going to live? Under a roof of bare wooden planks, with dried earth for walls, and packed dirt for our floor? The guards ordered a few prisoners to help us finish our resettlement. It didn’t take long; all we had were our two dressers, a low table, our clothes, and 125 pounds of rice. It was painful to look at these furnishings, infused still with the memory of our luxurious Pyongyang apartment. In the heavy silence our eyes wandered among the accoutrements of the past and the bleak surroundings of the present.
The hut was a four-family building. Our unit, the largest of the four, had a partition down the middle splitting it into two rooms. The dividing wall stopped short of the ceiling, so that a single bulb hanging directly above it could illuminate both spaces. I later discovered that the partition was built for the benefit of families who didn’t get along; it was permissible to take it down. The camp also had smaller-sized huts that were constructed for two and three families which, due to their low roofs and little squat openings for doors, were usually referred to as “harmonicas.” Every hut was surrounded with a patch of fenced-off dirt where the prisoners could grow whatever they wanted. Or rather whatever they could, for they worked so hard during the day, they had neither time nor energy at night for anything but sleep.
All of the camp’s electricity was generated by a little hydroelectric plant located inside the camp’s perimeter. The limitations of the system soon were apparent: the water froze in the wintertime and was too scant in the summer. Outages were therefore a frequent occurrence. Our immediate concern on our first night, however, was figuring out how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Fortunately, our neighbors came by and taught us a few of the camp’s basic survival skills. They demonstrated how to chop down a tree quickly and safely, how to keep a flame alive on a pine-resin-soaked wick, how to cook cornmeal over a wood fire, et cetera. There were no faucets in the huts, so all the water had to be drawn from the river that was a ten-minute walk—or a little longer on the way back, when the bucket was full. To a well-fed person these trips would be boring and uncomfortable but constitute an insurmountable test. Weak and undernourished as we would soon be, however, they were nothing short of exhausting. The other thing we didn’t have was heating fuel. That was what we had used in Pyongyang, but no such luxuries existed in Yodok. Instead we had to forage for wood that was dry enough to catch fire. Our room had a wood-burning furnace that, when topped with a caldron, doubled for a stove. Preparing the food was the family’s responsibility, and since Grandmother was old, the guards assigned her to this task. She had done well to bring a few kitchen things from Pyongyang: the only utensils the camp provided were beat-up mess tins.
Besides the huts, there were several large horseshoe-shaped buildings, which housed the single prisoners. My uncle told us they slept five or six to a room and seventy to one hundred per structure. Like the family units, these buildings were edged with small plots where prisoners could grow their own vegetables, but over the years, these areas kept shrinking. They first became the site for the buildings’ common kitchens and two outhouses, and later for stables housing the bulls and cows used for drawing carts. In each single building, the guards selected one prisoner to be barracks chief and lord over his fellow singles. From the remaining prisoners, four were assigned to work in the kitchen. These were always three women and one man, the latter being largely responsible for gathering and hauling wood. Some of the singles were in Yodok because they belonged to criminal families. Others were just petty criminals: people who missed an official march, exhibited want of enthusiasm for the Great Leader, or lacked requisite zeal in their denunciation of traitors to the state. Such wrongdoers usually spared the prisons for hardened criminals. They were, however, kept under special surveillance and forbidden from leaving their hut at night.
The collection of ten huts that made up our immediate surroundings constituted what we prisoners called a “village,” a word ill-fitted to the disorganized jumble of huts devoid of streets, a center, periphery, or official buildings. Formally, these settlements were known as “workers’ groups,” and each one was assigned a number for identification. Among ourselves, we shunned these cold, bureaucratic appellations and came up with a more poetic nomenclature of our own. Workers’ group number 2 was the “Royal Pine Village,” workers’ group number 4, the “Chestnut Tree Village,” and workers’ group number 10—where we lived—was “The Village on the Plain.”
Each village consolidated a specific category of detainees. Ours, which was built in 1974, was inhabited solely by former Japanese residents and their families. The segregation served as tacit recognition of our difficult integration into North Korean society, as well as a way of isolating all mention of the capitalist hell existing outside the country’s borders. For the same reason we were also forbidden—under threat of severe punishment—from having any contact with prisoners from other villages. Furtive messages were occasionally exchanged, however, during campwide ceremonies or up in the mountains, where we were sent to gather medicinal herbs under slack surveillance by the guards. Our communications were usually confined to notes about the layout of the camp, as we worked to expand the limited picture handed down to us by camp veterans. We traded information about the population of the various villages, the severity of the guards, the availability of food, and so forth.
All this came later, though. On first arriving at Yodok, we were like sailors just landed on a desert island, still marked by our recently departed world, but obliged to rediscover the gestures of a more remote past: to grab an ax, chop down a tree, build a fire, and cook something into a meal. We didn’t have much time: night would be falling soon, and in the dark we would be at a complete loss. My uncle, who knew the place a little better than the rest of us, offered to help. He went out and chopped down a small tree for firewood, but the green logs burned so piteously and raised so much smoke that one of our neighbors offered some of his own stock—along with the suggestion that we start working on a woodpile of our own.
The greatest challenge of the night was still before us, however. We needed to figure out how to cook rice over an open flame. The problem had never before presented itself, and Grandmother was not particularly focused on the task. I can still taste that first night’s rice: half burned and half uncooked. And yet it was the cause of much envy in the camp; one bachelor sneaked up to our hut and offered to exchange a bag of corn for a bowl of the barely edible mess. It looked great, and I pleaded with Grandmother to accept it, but she refused. Though served with the improbable hope of raising our spirits, dinner was not a particularly joyous event. Grandmother soon announced that our 125 pounds of rice wouldn’t last long at this rate and that our consumption would therefore have to be cut back. We had no choice but to agree. That night the family made a pledge to stay united, no matter what, and help each other out as much as we could. The next day we would be receiving our work detail; it would no doubt be difficult, but we would make it if we stuck together. They wouldn’t keep us in such a place forever!
Did any of us truly believe that the future would be so simple, that our honorable resolutions would actually be enough to protect us from reality? We nevertheless acted as though we believed, though the facade of optimism and heroic resolutions began to wear that very night, as we tossed and turned sleeplessly on our mats. We had resolved to create a common front, but against what?
Early the next morning, the first thing I saw through our little window was the surrounding mountain range. Its slopes were draped to their middle in a thick cover of trees. The view was magnificent. I was incredibly carefree, thinking back on it, which I can only attribute to my very young age. I was delighted by the stunning natural views—rare sights for a city boy like me—and it was in a state of great excitement that I stepped outside and started off toward the river. Birds sang all around me, and the air was brisk and infused with the fragrance of freshly cut hay. Arriving at the river, I discovered that its waters ran very deep and had a beautiful bluish green tint. I stood gazing into it for a moment, trying to make out fish in the current, then headed back to the hut.
By the time I returned, everyone was already awake. I sensed that the mood was not right for bucolic evocations and that I would do well to keep my impressions of the natural environs to myself. A few minutes later my uncle left to look for dead wood and I joined him. Our harvest was a meager one: for the commodity was apparently much sought after.
On our way back, we crossed paths with a little boy. I was sure he was the same age as I, but he swore he was two years my senior. Despite what I was told the previous day—about camp life stunting a child’s development—I couldn’t help being incredulous. His name was Oh Jung-il, and he was a four-year veteran of our village of former Japanese residents. Making conversation, my uncle ventured a remark on the beauty of the landscape, noting that “at least we have that for consolation.”
“You call this consolation?” the boy shot back at him. “Take a better look around. We’re in the trough of a valley. It might be uneven and bumpy, but it’s still a valley, and we’re surrounded by high mountains. The day you arrived in the camp you must have seen the line of barbed wire running out from either side of the entrance. The truth is, they only need it in a few places, where the natural obstacles aren’t drastic enough. In any case, it’s impossible to lay barbed wire when the slopes are too steep. Not that it really matters, given that they’ve strung a metal wire all around the periphery, which sets off an alarm as soon as you touch it. If that’s not enough, there are armed units on every mountaintop surveying the surrounding slopes.”
From where we were standing, we couldn’t see the electric wire, which apparently ran very close to the ground. As we squinted into the distance, Oh Jung-il went on.
“Besides the barbed wire and the military patrol, they also set traps like for wild animals. They dig ditches, plant them with rows of sharpened stakes, then camouflage them with branches. Just a few things you should know,” he continued, giggling, “in case you ever get an itch to make a run for it.”
The one advantage an escaping prisoner did have was a twelve-hour jump on his pursuers. Roll calls were held every six hours, but the guards only began investigating after they noticed two consecutive absences.
“Role call? When? Where?”
“You’re totally clueless,” responded the kid, laughing. “There are three role calls at Yodok camp, at five-thirty A.M., at noon, and at six-thirty P.M. They take place in front of the supply office, where work details are assigned to the different groups. Role calls last half an hour regardless of the weather. Only people with sick certificates are excused. Otherwise, everyone has to go, and you get punished if you don’t, or if you show up late.”
The kid then returned to the subject of escape, which was clearly dear to his heart. Only once had he heard the sirens go off and seen the security agents form into search parties and head up into the mountains. It took a while, but they eventually came down with their prey. The escaping prisoner had been stopped midcourse, well short of the summits he had hoped might spell freedom. He was tortured for a week or two, then executed.
“The punishment for attempted escape is execution. No exceptions. The guards make the whole village come out to watch it. . . . So given all that, I have a hard time seeing these mountains as very beautiful.”
We were silent, but the look on our faces must have communicated our horror. The boy noticed. Feeling a little guilty, perhaps, he tried to say something friendly and offer us a few bits of advice, which showed he was actually a nice kid whose humanity was still very much alive.
“Yeah,” he went on, “you gotta be really crazy to try to escape. On the other hand, sometimes you gotta be even crazier to stay, especially if you’re all alone, without family or friends. The work is hard, and there’s hardly ever enough food to take the edge off your hunger. . . . You’ll have to stick together, help each other out—and, remember, don’t trust anyone.”
“And you,” the boy said, turning to me, “you’ll be amazed at what they call school here. Anyway, good luck to you.”
His back was already turned and he was walking away, a towering bundle of grass balanced precipitously atop his head. We had spent too long talking and needed to hurry back. The guards had told us that at eight that morning our brigade leader would come by to explain the camp’s work details and rules of conduct. It was stressed that the whole family should be present. In North Korea—as I later learned was the case in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—camp guards aren’t satisfied to do all the surveillance themselves: they designate prisoners, unwilling ones sometimes, to become local chiefs and carry out responsibilities the police can’t execute on their own. They collect information and have the power to punish recalcitrants, most notably by denouncing them to their superiors. The brigade chiefs are important links in the chain of command between the camp’s authorities and the common detainee. They each supervise about ten work teams and only need to work half time themselves.
The brigade leader was already there by the time my uncle and I got back to the hut. Standing alongside a guard, his companion on these missions, he was giving my family a rundown of the camp’s work rules. Grandmother would be the only one exempt from working, it being her responsibility to stay home and cook for the rest of us. The routine for my sister and me was school in the morning and manual labor in the afternoon. There would also be the common chores of chopping wood and hauling logs, growing corn, pulling weeds, and so forth, as well as obligatory participation in the Party’s recently initiated campaign for the foraging of wild ginseng in the mountains, a project sure to be “close to our hearts,” given our desire to redeem our bad conduct. The camp’s various work details were assigned to five-prisoner work teams, each with its own production quota. Work details were handed down from the brigade leader to the team leader and from him to the other members of the team. The brigade leader himself was subordinate to a prisoner-overseer, who was chosen by the authorities to represent the village as a whole. While exempt from performing any physical labor, the overseer was responsible for surveying the prisoners and drawing up reports. If his workload ever became too burdensome, a second overseer could be assigned to assist him. The brigade leader who was explaining all this to us never mentioned the criteria used for selecting the overseer, but I was later able to divine this information for myself: the man’s requirements were to be burly—so to be physically menacing—and to have a general propensity for wholehearted collaboration with the camp’s authorities. With these qualities as the cornerstone of his character, it is no surprise that the overseer tended to be more severe than even the guards—and more universally loathed by his fellow prisoners. The network of collaboration didn’t end with him. There was also a “delegate” to help the agents prepare and organize work details; two statisticians to track the progress of various harvests (of wood, grains, etc.); and two general administrators: one to oversee the distribution of food, tools, and uniforms, and the other to organize special ceremonies.
When the brigade leader had finished his orientation, the guard stepped forward to say his piece.
“You people don’t deserve to live,” he announced, “but the Party and our Great Leader have given you a chance to redeem yourselves. Don’t squander it and don’t disappoint him. We will discuss all this further at our next meeting for criticism and self-criticism.”
The two then left without another word, which was a little encouraging. The guard really scared me. I later learned to distinguish the real zealots—the ones who lay in wait for a word or a look that might betray the family criminality—from those you could talk to. The guards were almost all uneducated, rough people, of a generally bad character. There were a few exceptions, of course, but they could never stand their assignment for long. Eventually the camp’s atmosphere would get to them, and they would ask to be transferred elsewhere.
To become a guard at a place like Yodok, the first requirement was having a good background—in other words, being from a family of peasants or of poor workers. Next, you had to have no “anti-Communist criminals” in your family as far as your first cousins. You were then judged on your personal qualities, namely, your physical strength and your degree of political orthodoxy. If everything still checked out, you would be admitted into the training program required for serving at a camp.
The guards moved into Yodok with their families and lived in a small barrack near the camp’s main entrance. Their children attended a school on the camp grounds—a separate one from ours, of course, it being crucial to separate the wheat from the chaff. Theirs was a real school, open more than just the mornings, with real teachers instead of vicious brutes. The guards’ kids were treated as well as Pyongyang residents and received an education that was every bit as good. As the offspring of criminals, we weren’t even allowed to meet these children. On a couple of occasions, though, I did manage to catch a glimpse of them. I remember how surprised I was the first time. It was September 1979 and I was working in a field abutting their school. I heard a cry of joy and looked up to see them in the yard. I was fascinated by their energy, the cleanliness of their clothes, their ruddy faces and well-cropped hair, all of which made them seem so different from the creature I had become.
During his morning visit, the brigade leader had assigned my father and uncle to an agricultural work team, to which they were to report at 6:00 A.M. the next day, the same time my sister and I were to be in school. Our half workday would begin at 1:00 P.M. The schedule would remain unchanged until we reached the age of fifteen, at which point we would be considered adults and assigned to full work duty. Before our new routine could begin, however, we had to go to the supply office for our uniforms. We all showed up there together to try on the meager selections of hand-me-downs. The experience left us all feeling a little ashamed. As we shed our old clothes, we could feel our former civilian lives slipping away, those lives in which we wore ties and clean shirts, briefs and comfortable socks. From this point forward, our wardrobes would consist of a purple jacket and a pair of pants, both coarsely sewn from a rough, heavy cloth. The uniforms were fitted with a great number of buttons and resembled the Chinese prison outfits I later saw on television and in the movies. Wearing this uniform for the first time was strange enough, but seeing my father and sister in them was stranger still. When it rained a few weeks later, we were in for another unpleasant discovery: the clothes shrank as soon as they got wet. Now they weren’t just uncomfortable, they were downright ridiculous, too. Not that any of the veteran detainees ever noticed. These uniforms were distributed to us in mid-August and were meant to serve us through the entire year. A few prisoners told me the camp had precise rules regulating distribution of linen and uniforms. If these rules existed, they certainly weren’t followed while I was there. In all my time in Yodok, I only received uniforms twice, and though they quickly came apart, they were all I had to wear—day after day, year after year, in field, mine, forest, and mountain.
During our years of detention, rags were often the only clothing we had. Our garments eventually reached such a repulsive state that the guards had no choice but to let us wear our old clothes from the “outside.” It wasn’t long before these became so tattered and grimy as to be indistinguishable from our uniforms. After a few months in the camp, the appearance of our rags bothered us no more than they did anybody else. The only thing that mattered was keeping warm. When the winter cold set in, we put on everything we could get our hands on, hoping against hope that the layers of rags might protect us. We were also constantly on the lookout for ways to steal more clothes. Working on a funeral crew, we never buried a corpse without first stripping it naked. Apart from the cold, the worst part was underwear. The camp authorities provided us with briefs and undershirts, but their cloth was so rough that it rasped our skin, causing us to itch and sometimes to develop open wounds, such that we soon found it preferable to go without them. I ultimately came up with the idea of recycling my old tattered briefs into linings, sewing them to the inside of my camp-issued underwear. As for socks, our annual quota of one pair never lasted long, despite my grandmother’s ceaseless and often miraculous darning.
At night, after a brief dinner of corn, we all scrambled immediately off to bed, thinking of the day to come, our first day of work in the camp, a day that would surely be difficult. For me it was simply horrible.