My first months at Yodok were among the most difficult. I had to adjust to a life without comforts, to restrictions on my time, to extreme physical exertion, and to unfamiliar food. And I had to do it in relative solitude, for in a place like Yodok, rare are the bonds of friendship and solidarity.
Our arrival had initially constituted a major event in the lives of Yodok’s detainees, a chance to reestablish contact with the outside world. Talking to a newly arrived prisoner was like feeling a fresh wind from the world beyond their valley prison. But in the beginning I cringed at getting too close to the other detainees. Their faces were ugly, they had missing teeth, their hair was caked together and overgrown, and they were all filthy as animals. Yet more striking than their physical appearance was the aura of weakness that oozed from their every pore. Their weariness and dejection seemed the root of their neglect—these and a pervasive sense of desperation, which they were perhaps more adept at dissimulating. None of them made any effort to look presentable. It was clear that they bathed rarely, if at all, and that the work of laundering was usually left to the rain and snow.
During the first days of my detention, I met a kid who wore black socks. At least that’s what I thought until I realized his socks in fact were an incredible layer of dirt and grime. I, too, would one day wear such “socks.” I’m still grateful to my grandmother for forcing us to wash our hands and feet whenever we had a little time and energy. It was a way of resisting the imposed conditions and the feelings of exhaustion and self-loathing they engendered.
My father, uncle, and sister seemed as exhausted as I. When we returned to our hut at night and sat around the little low table eating our corn, hardly anyone said a word. As soon as we were done eating, we hurried off to bed, knowing instinctively that to survive here, we’d need to recuperate all the strength we could.
Still, before getting into bed, I would spend a few minutes hunched over my aquarium. It seemed too large now for the three or four fish that still clung to life. It mattered little that I changed their water and that I provided them food by catching insects during my work. They were having as hard a time at Yodok as I was. Eventually there was only one survivor: a black fish who had succeeded in adjusting to his catch-as-catch-can diet. As temperatures dropped throughout November, he continued to hold strong; then he held out through December, too. To keep the aquarium from freezing over, I wrapped it in rags and asked Grandmother to move it near the stove whenever she did any cooking. Yet winter deepened, my efforts seemed every day more hopeless. The temperature soon fell below freezing in our hut, and we spent our nights shivering in our blankets.
Despite all my cares, the black champion died. Over the last weeks of summer I had gathered roaches, dragonflies, silkworms, and any other bugs that might pass for fish food. I had dried these in the sun and ground them into a powder. My fish accepted the food, but the cold got the better of him. Seeing his lifeless body floating on the surface of the water filled me with great sadness. Yet distraught I wasn’t. By this time I was struggling with the problem of my own survival and had little energy left for grieving. What I was staring at was the final dissolution of my former life: a door that was closing. That fish had known our life in Pyongyang and, from time to time, he reminded me of the pebbles, sand, and diptychs I had bought at the store around the corner from our house. With his death, my former world had taken another step.
The retreat of that other universe was also manifested in my mother’s absence, which was growing ever longer. In the beginning, I hardly thought of her. Our days were so full, we hadn’t time to think about anyone, and at night we were so tired I barely had the energy left to utter her name. The memories didn’t come on their own, and I had no desire to help them along. Yet as the days and weeks passed, my sister and I longed more and more for Mother’s return. When we asked Grandmother about it, she pleaded ignorance. Father, for his part, counseled patience, but he acted like someone who no longer believed his own words.
I feel almost guilty complaining publicly about the life I led at Yodok. Yes, guilty, for Yodok is by no means the toughest camp in North Korea. Far worse exist, and they are shrouded in such secrecy that for a long time it was impossible to talk about them with any precision. Rumors about these places circulated constantly at Yodok, but firsthand accounts were rare. Most of the prisoners in these camps were irredeemables serving life sentences. There were a few exceptions, however, and they sometimes got transferred to Yodok. According to them, our camp was paradise compared to the others. Such judgments were always difficult for us to believe, and we would press these rare birds for more details. They said that the guards in other camps would breathe down their necks, pushing them to work ever harder, and that they had Kalachnikovs slung over their shoulders, ready to fire at the slightest hint of provocation. At Yodok, the guards only had revolvers, and these rarely came out of their holsters. The surveillance, furthermore, was not always that close. The guards at Yodok never let their work put them out. The only thing they cared about was our production quota. Harassing inmates for its own sake was rarely part of the program.
Like the irredeemables in Yodok, the inmates of the other hard-labor camps were members of landholding families, capitalists, U.S. or South Korean agents, Christians, or members of purged Party circles deemed noxious to the state. The various prisoners were given the same treatment, regardless of their crime. Unlike Yodok’s redeemable population, who stopped work early on bad-weather days, the irredeemables labored equally long hours during the winter and summer months. The men and the women lived separately and were grouped according to their health and vigor, with the strongest prisoners assigned to the most backbreaking work. Their children received an education that was even less worthy of that title than what we had. After barely three years of middle school, the kids were classified as adults and assigned to fatigue duty from morning until night. At Yodok, the children of irredeemables had their own schools, and we were strictly forbidden from mixing. Their clothes, too, were more threadbare, torn, and dirty than anything we wore. A final detail: they were all given special haircuts, which marked them as lifers, and made it impossible for them to pass for citizens if they ever tried to escape.
Yodok and the hard-labor camps did have several points in common, the first of these being the snitches. During the first days and weeks of our detention, my father and uncle felt most oppressed by the physical demands of forced labor and the looming threat of punishment. The slightest wrong move, it seemed, could mean extra work or a stint of solitary confinement in a sweatbox. This fear, they soon realized, was the consequence of the network of snitches that pervaded the camp. The informants were at every turn. There was no one to confide in, no way to tell who was who. The veteran prisoners sometimes laughed at my father and uncle because of all the naïve questions they asked, which only made them more depressed. The only advice their fellow prisoners could offer was to have patience: they would learn to pick out the snitches soon enough. Until then, they would do well to keep their thoughts to themselves. The camp’s common wisdom turned out to be true. Within a few months, we all developed a sixth sense—a snitch radar, if you will—that told us who could be trusted and who could not. Yet a snitch is not necessarily a bad guy. The prisoner is usually picked for the job without being asked his or her opinion, and, in most cases, the honor is not one for which he or she is proud.
Another similarity between Yodok and the hard-labor camps was the layout. Many people tended to imagine concentration camps as confined spaces surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers. In fact, Yodok is only one of many expansive reservations where fields, rivers, and hills take the place of man-made obstacles. Since its opening in 1959, it has been the system’s largest camp. The idea for the prison was born when North Korea’s defense minister visited the area and was impressed by its topography. A little later the government trucked in several squads of prisoners to build a few permanent structures—surveillance posts, living quarters for guards and their families, workshops, schools—then had them hammer together the remaining boards to make the villages. Once that was done, all that remained was to seal off the mouth of the valley. My “village” lay a day’s walk—about twenty-five miles—from the foot of the surrounding mountains, which marked the edge of the camp. I was able to assess this distance during an authorized work outing to the mountain’s lower slopes. Subsequent assignments allowed me to expand my picture of the general layout, but, since permission to move widely was rarely granted, I had limited knowledge of areas beyond my usual work zone.
I would be dishonest to claim exhaustive knowledge of Yodok, and I am still annoyed by my ignorance of the place where I lived for so long.
Our isolation seemed almost normal to us. We also knew that isolation was a feeling shared by prisoners everywhere, throughout the ages. Yet unlike in many prisons, we were not allowed to receive packages. (I didn’t receive a single package during my entire stay.) The feeling of being isolated in the very place where I lived, to the point of not knowing who else was there or even where the camp was located, seemed particularly inhumane. It wasn’t just a way of keeping me in the dark about where I was, it was a means of attacking my identity. After a decade in Yodok, my knowledge of the camp boils down to this: of Yodok’s ten villages, four were for redeemables and six were for irredeemables, or political criminals. The latter group lived in a high-security zone that was separated from ours by several hills, as well as by rows of barbed wire rolled out along the valley’s floor.
The irredeemables were all lifers. They knew they were never leaving the camp. No matter how long their hearts continued to pump, or their lungs to breathe, they would never again live as citizens. Their children, too, would suffer this fate. As the official propaganda never tired of reminding us, it was necessary to “desiccate the seedlings of counterrevolution, pull them out by their roots, exterminate every last one of them.” That’s the actual word the North Korean authorities used: exterminate—myulhada. These prisoners were tossed into a world of phantoms and nonentities, a world so devoid of hope it didn’t even require its citizens to display portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, or to learn the “lessons of Kim Il-sung’s Revolution,” or to attend sessions for criticism and self-criticism. Painful and absurd as the latter were, such requirements were grudging admissions that the people subjected to them were still citizens worthy of reeducation. They had run astray of the Party’s path, but they might yet be brought back into the fold. The same could not be said for the irredeemables. To the Party and the socialist state, they were perfect zeros, worthy at best of supplying labor until their dying days. At Yodok, they represented approximately 70 percent of the camp’s population.
The North Korean state separated even the irredeemables into different categories. I never learned what sort of criteria they used, but several detainees affirmed that certain irredeemables were condemned to work details so difficult and brutal that they soon died. These unfortunates were usually sent to large, isolated work sites, where they worked under a cloak of total secrecy building military complexes or assembling sensitive products such as missiles or other sophisticated munitions. In North Korea, such work is never entrusted to common citizens, or even to detainees who have a chance of one day getting out. Military secrets were best left to the irredeemables, who could take them to their graves. The system constitutes an important source of savings for the state: not only did it conserve the executioners’ bullets, it furnishes from a labor force that demanded no salary and very little food.
There were various rumors in the camp about irredeemables who had engaged in savage, desperate revolts. Were they true stories or fantasies of revenge? According to one often-repeated story, a few years before our arrival at Yodok, the irredeemables held in the neighboring zone went on a rampage and killed a number of guards with axes, sickles, and pitchforks. The army was called in and immediately encircled the camp before any of the convicts could escape. It was said that no quarter was given to the male prisoners. This might explain why, by the time I arrived in Yodok, the high-security zone was filled mostly with old people, women, and children.
After meeting a few irredeemables, I lost any lingering doubt I might have had about the reality of this and other rumored rebellions. These prisoners’ states of mind were so estranged from ordinary human thinking. In my part of the camp, the detainees still held to the hope of getting out one day. They set their teeth, suffered in silence, tried to hold out. Hope clung to their bodies even when it seemed to abandon their minds. But those in the high-security zone harbored no hope of returning to normal life. What reason could they have for patience? They must have thought—like Karl Marx’s own proletariat—that they had only their chains to lose. In a life so grim, death was the only future close at hand.