Grandmother woke me up just as the sun was beginning to rise. Here at Yodok, there could be no question of arguing or of feigning sleep. I rolled out of bed under the pallid light of our solitary bulb. I put on my horrible uniform, swallowed another little helping of corn, and walked off to my assigned assembly location. By the time I arrived, several of the children were already there waiting. They all stared at me with wide, curious eyes. Several minutes passed, then a few students—I supposed them to be delegates of some sort—got us into rows and marched us toward the school, leading us in a rendition of “The Song of Kim Il-sung,” which I knew from my days at the People’s School in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, our singing on this morning was judged too reserved by the teachers waiting for us at the school entrance and we were ordered to back up ten yards and take the march and song again with more vigor.
The school was a square compound composed of two facing buildings joined on either side by a wall. A flower bed and a lawn stretched between the buildings. The classrooms were floorheated in the traditional Korean manner, but only when the temperature dropped below 14˚F. Above the blackboards, dominating every classroom, hung the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The school’s rickety collection of desks were jerry-built things, nailed together by prisoners from leftover building materials. Since North Korea has always maintained that war is imminent and that enemies are everywhere, the country is in a constant state of alert. Little surprise, then, that our school buildings were under twenty-four-hour surveillance. To make this oversight possible, two annexes were added to the back of the buildings. The first housed the on-duty schoolmaster, while the second, slightly larger building lodged the twelve student guards who worked on twelve-hour shifts. A little farther off was the little building that held the Kim Il-sung Room, a sort of shrine filled with posters, books, and photos honoring the exploits of the Great Leader. Behind the annexes was a row of warrens that caged the school’s rabbits.
In September 1977, I was beginning my final year of grammar school. (In North Korea, primary education lasts four years and is followed by five years of middle school.) At Yodok, all the kids from several neighboring villages were placed to one of two mixed-level classes with fifty students each. We began our school day by sweeping and mopping the classroom floor. After this little exercise was done, at around seven, the schoolmaster gave us our morning assignment. For the first hour, students were supposed to get in groups and review the previous day’s lesson. Since I was new, I had nothing to do but sit and wait. The review session was followed by lessons in Korean, mathematics, biology, and, finally, the politics of the Party, which was the teacher’s clear favorite. The latter class essentially consisted of repeating formulas I’d been mouthing my entire life, about the advantages of the brilliant “Juche” ideology extolling the self-sufficiency of the Korean community, whose singular existence was animated by the spirit of our one and only Great Leader. In this course as in the others, I learned little I did not already know. Each lesson lasted fifty minutes and was followed by a ten-minute break. Classes were over by noon.
I had teachers at Yodok who actually took their jobs seriously. Most teachers, however, showed a total disregard for our well-being, sometimes even letting us nap with our heads on our desks under the pretense that this was teaching us self-sufficiency and discipline. Apart from the ideological regime, which was more or less the same everywhere in North Korea, there was simply no comparison between the lives of Yodok students and those of students on the outside.
Our teachers generally addressed us in the harshest, crudest manner. Instead of using our first or last names, they blurted things like “Hey, you, in the back of the room! Hey, you, the idiot in the third row! Hey, you, son of a whore.” It was also common for them to beat us. That came as quite a discovery for me. Unlike the teachers I’d had in Pyongyang—who were attentive, patient, and devoted—my instructors at Yodok were simply brutes, whose primary concern was crushing “counterrevolutionary vermin”—or rather the offspring of counterrevolutionary vermin, which to them amounted to the same thing.
The camp had many difficult times in store—the death of good friends, my grandmother’s illnesses, my frostbite, the obligatory witnessing of public executions—but by the time these things happened, I’d had experiences to help me absorb the shock. No good is ever expected of an accident or an illness or an execution. But a child of ten can well expect some good to come from school, such as friends and teachers who care for him and help him discover things, who listen and encourage. Any such hope I might have had was betrayed the first day I walked through the classroom door. Our teacher, revolver at his side, hollered at us at the slightest irritation and quickly graduated to insulting and beating.
Newly arrived and still unfamiliar with what passed for good behavior, I was overanxious to win the teacher’s good graces and demonstrate my superiority over the rest of the class. Perhaps the other kids in the room really were bad eggs, but I certainly wasn’t. My grandmother had been a member of the National Assembly, and my grandfather had given his entire fortune to the Party. To show I was one of Kim Il-sung’s good soldiers, I kept asking questions and putting in my two cents whenever possible.
What a mistake! As the teacher was lecturing about the Namhodu conference and Kim Il-sung’s brilliant speech of April 27, 1936, I became aware that he was confusing the circumstances surrounding this address with the intrigues of the Dahongdan conference. I raised my hand and asked him about the possible confusion. The man with the revolver walked over with a heavy step and slapped me hard across the face. There was a burst of laughter in the room. The new guy had just got his first lesson. I was terror stricken—though more outraged than sad, more hate-filled than despairing. I decided that I would do everything in my power to undermine that vile brute who was passing himself off as a teacher. I would do like the others and sit there without saying a word. Yet my silent compact would prove a weak palliative against the lasting pain of that episode. In receiving that slap I grasped that my life had fallen into a “nasty place,” to recall the phrase of my former Pyongyang comrades.
The break with my former world didn’t coincide with my arrival at the camp. In some respects, the place itself was not to blame. I could sometimes forget my detention and let myself be transported by the pleasure of being in the country. The river and the distant mountains were often a source of relief and consolation. But that first day of class remains a horrible memory. I felt something tear inside me then—something that connected me to the only other life I had known. From then on, I felt the same fear in front of certain teachers as I had felt the day of our arrival, when from inside the truck I heard the guards shouting abuses at the people clamoring to see us, the new criminals. I had been made to believe—and had indeed wanted to believe—that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was the best country in the world. I looked up to Kim Il-sung as a god. Yet here were armed teachers beating and insulting their student charges.
Over the course of my detention, I had half a dozen male teachers and two female teachers, both of whom were the wives of guards. Of all, only one deserved the title of instructor. The worst was the one we called the Wild Boar—the very same who had taken such exception to my knowledge of the Namhodu conference. Almost as ruthless was Pak Tae-seu, a.k.a. the Old Fox, who sometimes punished his students by making them stand naked in the courtyard all day with their hands behind their backs. We hated him so much we once got up the courage to damage his bicycle. To get us to denounce the culprits, he confined us all to our huts. When that didn’t work, he tried threats and thrashings and extra hours of work at night, when our sole desire in life was to sleep. But we never cracked.
One of the most common forms of school punishment was latrine duty. There were always two monitors—fellow prisoners both—who stood at the school entrance to watch over the arriving students and pick out the latecomers. A student who was tardy could expect to get a week’s worth of latrine duty, which consisted of cleaning the stalls or emptying the septic tanks. The tanks had to be emptied once a year, and if there was a dearth of students requiring punishment, the teachers would choose kids at random.
One time a friend of mine from class started complaining to us because he’d been picked for the nasty job several times in a row. “I’m always the one,” he whined. “Don’t the teachers have anything better for us to do? It’s probably because they like shit!” Someone must have gone to squeal to the Wild Boar, because a minute later we saw him walking toward us looking mad as hell. He grabbed the guilty student and started beating him savagely, first punching him with his clenched fists, then kicking him. Battered and wobbly-legged, the boy fell into the septic tank, where he remained trapped for a long time, unable to find a foothold or get anyone to reach in and help him. Content with his work, the teacher lost interest and walked away. After a long struggle, my friend managed to reach the edge and climb out, but he was in such a sad state that no one wanted to help him wash up or bandage his wounds. A few days later he died. We never quite knew of what. But the story has an epilogue: a few days later, his mother went to see the teacher, weeping and asking for her son back. The Wild Boar calmly replied that the boy had said revolting things and deserved what punishment he got. As for his death, well, that wasn’t his responsibility. And then he kicked the mother out!
The Wild Boar treated us more like animals than children—which, he never failed to remind us, was already a considerable indulgence on his part: “Since your parents are counterrevolutionaries, they deserve to die, and you, their children, along with them. Fortunately for you, the Party is kind and its Great Leader magnanimous. He has granted you a reprieve and the chance to redeem yourselves. You should be grateful, but instead you commit further offenses! Commit too many and you will not be forgiven!” We would all lower our eyes, wishing for our torturer’s death. Boys and girls were equal beneficiaries of his undiscriminating brutality and his favorite punishment, which consisted of ordering a student down on all fours and making him or her crawl in front of the class, saying, “I’m a dog . . . I’m a dog. . . .”
Our two women teachers were considerably less rough. We christened one of them, a rotund lady in her fifties, the Chinese Cabbage. Though she was stronger than almost any of the male teachers, she was less severe in her beatings. She did have her forte, however: a nasty pinch that left a big blue patch on your skin. The desire to practice her little specialty could overtake her at any moment, which taught us always to keep out of her reach. The other woman teacher was younger, around thirty years old. She wasn’t mean, but she tried to make it seem as if she was. She often yelled at the students, but there was rarely any anger in her voice. To punctuate her shouting frenzies, she would sometimes hit us on the hands with her ruler, but her blows had no more weight than her yelling. Alas, she left the camp after two years to bring a child into the world. Apart from these women and another teacher I’m still grateful to, the teachers were all brutes. The Wild Boar, with his beatings and his outbursts of unbounded rage, was truly disturbed. The Old Fox, for his part, practiced a cruelty that was nothing short of sadistic. He battered us with method, an adept technician of suffering, always searching for a way to maximize pain. When our hands were stained black from peeling walnuts, for example, he would make us clean them by rubbing them back and forth across the ground. And if ever we didn’t rub hard enough, he crushed our hands beneath his boot.
Trust between student and teacher was utterly impossible under such conditions. As for the teacher who caused our friend’s death, the only feeling that connected us to him was unalloyed hatred. We couldn’t stand the arrogance of these would-be pedagogues, their ridiculous vanity as they tooled around the camp perched on their bicycles. I remember the winter day when we saw the teacher we called the Youngster arrive in the courtyard on his brand-new bike. He tried to show off by coming to a skidding stop, but instead slipped and went flying into the mud. We laughed to high heaven. Crimson with rage, the idiot started chasing us around with a stick—as local custom demanded. All the guards had a right to one of these bikes, which were called Seagulls. Owning a Seagull was a mark of distinction, a symbol of the guards’ superiority over the lowly prisoners, who had to shuffle around the camp in bad shoes or with rags tied around their feet. Unlike most North Korean–made products, the Seagulls, which were produced in the Susong prison, were of very good quality—good enough, in fact, to compete on the international market. They usually sold for 3,000 won (i.e., $40 on the black market, or ten times that counting by the official exchange rate). The Chinese bikes, by comparison, cost 2,000 won, while the Japanese models generally ran in the 10,000-won range. If the Susong prison plant ever exceeded its quota, the surplus bikes were sold for only 1,500 won. First in line for these were the relatives of security agents and camp and prison guards. They all doted on their bikes, which is exactly why we decided to vandalize Old Fox’s beloved machine.
These childish capers, so like those pulled off by children everywhere around the world, could mean serious trouble in Yodok. Such was the case when the Wild Boar asked one of us—his name was Kim Chae-yu—to watch his Seagull while he went to a teacher’s meeting. As soon as Wild Boar had turned his back, we all started begging Kim to let us take a few laps on the bike. It took some work, but he finally ceded. I was the fifth to take a spin and was more than a little proud to be peddling around on that magnificent machine, though by the time my turn came the bike was not looking that great. The first kid had only been riding a minute or so when he took a fall and bent one of the mud guards. We managed to pull it back with our hands, but the dent was noticeable. The second rider managed to complete his laps without incident, but then the third kid broke a spoke, and all of us were being very careless about riding through mud and puddles. We were in full frivolity when Wild Boar came back earlier than expected. He immediately started beating Kim Chae-yu, and when he was done with him, he kicked the rest of us. The real punishment, however, was a week of supplementary night work, during which we were made to dig ditches, then fill them with rocks, then dig new ditches and fill them with the dirt from the first ditch, and so on. Like in a bad dream.
Classes ended at noon. We had an hour to rest and eat the cornmeal we brought from home in a mess kit. Afterward we worked outdoors under the teacher’s supervision. That’s how I learned to plant rice, grow corn, and chop down trees. My first work assignment was on a team that assisted adults who were logging up in the mountains. We were charged with hauling the logs down to the village, where another group of adults cut the wood into small pieces, about a meter long, and loaded them into a truck. The logs were terribly heavy, even with two of us carrying them, and the place where the trees were being felled was three or four kilometers from the village. To fill our daily quota, we had to finish twelve round trips each, which added up to about forty kilometers, with a log on our shoulder half the way. The work would have been exhausting for the heartiest of children; and for a city boy like me, for whom this was a first introduction to physical labor, it was simply impossible. I was dead on my feet by the third trip and had to ask the kid working with me to stop a minute so I could catch my breath. He grumblingly agreed. I sat down. In an instant, a black curtain descended before my eyes and I fell to the ground. I was out for about an hour. When I came to I was surrounded by the kids in my work group, who were all furious with me.
Like the adults, we worked in groups of five. If illness or physical incapacity caused one of the detainees to lag, the whole group fell behind and risked being penalized. There was no such thing as individual responsibility: one’s work only counted as part of the collective output. As long as a team’s quota hadn’t been reached, none of its members could return to the village, no matter how old or tired or sick they might be. Workers needed to remain with their group, and the group needed to meet its quota. The policy had the effect of breeding animosity among the detainees and destroying any solidarity that might serve as moral balm. This might have been the very reason for the policy’s existence. The guards could basically sit back and relax: the prisoners were forced to create a system of self-surveillance, which while perfectly effective at maintaining order, required little outside intervention.
It’s easy to imagine how angry my comrades were with me that afternoon. Some of them accused me of putting on an act and even started kicking me, disguising their blows as friendly pick-me-ups to rouse me from my stupor. The next day the teacher assigned me to an easier detail: keeping track of the round trips completed by the others. But it wasn’t long before I was again judged ready for hard labor.