My first winter in the camp was very trying, especially January and February of 1978. It wasn’t school that was the problem anymore—that slap I got for knowing too much about the life of Kim Il-sung had taught me how to keep my mouth shut. I had also grown accustomed to the afterschool work of felling and hauling trees, so that wasn’t the problem either. No, the greatest difficulty now had to do with nourishment. I was always hungry and had problems digesting the little food I did get. Our meals were so unchanging they started to make me sick. Grandmother noticed what was happening and, to break the monotony, sometimes cooked me some of our remaining rice. But she had resolved to make our little stock—the one buffer we had against extreme deprivation—last as long as possible, and would never cede to my pleas for more.
Corn was always on the menu: sometimes it was accented with the herbs Grandmother made us gather; sometimes it was plain; sometimes it was mixed with acorn paste, which was every bit as bland as the corn. The acorns first had to be boiled and crushed into a paste, then molded into a block, and finally set out to dry and harden. After that, small bits of the block could be broken off and mixed with water and salt. From beginning to end, the process took several days.
We also created our own variation of oksusupap, a traditional dish of rice and corn. We used the camp’s flour mill to crush the dried corn kernels into rice-sized bits, which we then boiled in water. A soup of dried vegetables sometimes interrupted our daily diet of corn, and once in a great while we would have a fish. We could only catch these when the guards weren’t around, because fishing was banned at Yodok. The guards—straight-faced as ever—said that the rule existed to protect the environment. A few of the craftier inmates were nevertheless able to assemble complete fishing rigs with corks, shot, and hooks. On the camp’s meager black market, a good line sold for about two pounds of corn, which wasn’t all that much considering how much we valued a fish. Our camp rations were never plentiful enough to leave us feeling satiated. And the way we attacked our meals! Never exchanging a word. Just grunting, like people who had forgotten all their good manners.
We had brought kitchen utensils with us from Pyongyang, but they soon broke or wore out, at which point we had to use the mess tins distributed by the camp. Easily dented and immediately blackened by the open flames, they were ugly as could be. Yet what choice did we have? We had to make them last as long as possible, filling the holes with whatever we had at our disposal, or soldering them at the camp’s welding shop. The most useful utensil we had was a kind of gourd that was easily carried on one’s person. It was perfect for holding a frog or a salamander caught during the day. If we managed to steal some corn during our fieldwork, the gourd could also double as a cooking utensil. To prevent the guards from noticing our fire, we would use wood charcoal, which burns without smoking. Our favorite dish was a sort of grated corn chowder. If one of the kids from our work team succeeded in slipping into the cornfields unnoticed, the rest of us would ratchet up our production to help cover for the absentee while he stole a few ears of corn and prepared the soup. When I was ten years old, I was the smallest kid in my group and the one to whom this mission generally fell. I was good at it and had quite a successful streak. But one day I was caught. Fortunately, the guard decided a sound beating was punishment enough, and he refrained from assigning me extra work. I was on probation, however, and the next time my group picked me for a mission, I was so scared I was shaking. I’m still a little nostalgic for that dish—in spite of everything. I’ve had it several times since Yodok, but I’ve never been able to rediscover the taste it had in the camp. My last attempt was when I bought it in a fancy department store, but the results were disappointing and I haven’t tried since.
Two events always gave the camp a morale boost: heavy rains and the launching of new education campaigns. Both meant a break from our usual existence as beasts of burden. The campaigns for the study of Kim Il-sung’s thought took place in a large room on the village grounds. The program usually consisted of a Party official reading out loud from an article in Rodong Sinmun, the Party newspaper, which was supposed to incite us to new heights of political devotion. The reading was punctuated by short paraphrases—which the Party official thought of as commentary.
When heavy rains made it impossible for us to work outside, we were sent to one of the shops to repair tools or weave baskets. We felt less tired on these days and more like ourselves. Dinnertime was vaguely reminiscent of former days, with my father and uncle asking after our health and wanting to know everything about the work we’d been doing. Then the two of them would get to talking about a topic that had never come up back in Pyongyang: their old life in Japan. I remember one time, my sister and I listened, mouths agape, as our father recalled a competition he had won with carrier pigeons he himself had raised. He then lowered his voice and explained that in Japan you could say whatever you wanted in front of anyone without being scared and that you could find anything your heart desired, including pigeon food—as long, of course, as you had the means.
“That’s not just a detail,” grumbled my grandmother.
I don’t remember anything bad being said about the North Korean regime or its leaders at any time during our first year of detention. My relatives found joy simply in evoking their childhood memories. Sometimes the two brothers would softly intone old Japanese melodies. Father loved to sing “A Song for My Mother” to my grandmother to thank her for all her attempts to cook us something edible. The song had to do with a loving mother who sits knitting gloves, her eyes made red by icy winds and want of sleep. The lyrics lacked a certain poetry, but they moved us and made the tears flow from Grandmother’s eyes. She was the one who had originally dragged the family into this whole mess, but she was also the one who made it possible for us to resist. She made it possible with her care and encouragement and pluck. It’s only thanks to her that I survived, and the same goes for my sister. The poor girl needed all the care and attention she could get. People are horrified when they hear how old I was when my family got taken to Yodok, but then I tell them about Mi-ho, who was only seven. I don’t know if that child faced the same hardships I did in the camp; we almost never saw each other during the day, and at night she was as exhausted as everybody else and immediately collapsed into sleep. That was something else the camp stole from us—our sibling bond. I think about her now with great regret and affection. She survived because she was strong—very strong. For despite my grandmother’s support, she ultimately was left to confront the snitches, the agents, the weariness, and the hunger all alone.
The spring of 1979 had arrived. It was my second spring in the camp, and it followed a winter that camp veterans counted as mild. Spring is a hard season for the detainees of Yodok, the worst, I believe. Many withstand the cold of winter only to perish in the season of rebirth. Children and the elderly are most afflicted. The prisoners often called it “the yellow season,” because people felt out of shape and weak at the slightest physical exertion; they suffered from dizzy spells and in the most severe cases saw the sky as yellow instead of blue. Those who were unable to protect themselves in the preceding months died. The key was to take advantage of the fall, when fruit and vegetables could still be found, to consume like bears in hibernation, eating enough to get through winter and fight through spring. That’s the most important thing I learned in school. I didn’t learn it from my teachers, of course, but from fellow students, some of whom had already been in the camp for close to three years. They explained that to survive, one had to steal corn and soybeans, to do it methodically, systematically, eating as much as one could in the fall and stashing the rest against the harder times of the seasons to follow. There was no other way to survive.
Our corn rations were extremely meager: adults who worked from sunup to sundown had a daily allowance of 500 grams; others, including children, were allotted 400 grams. Vegetables were not distributed at all, and the few cabbages and turnips we managed to grow in our little plot were nowhere near enough to feed a household. Despite the risks of getting caught, we wound up stealing whatever we could get our hands on. We stole from the vegetable fields, from the agent’s plots, from the cornfields. We also took advantage of logging expeditions to gather wild berries, which could only be found up in the mountain, since around the villages everything was picked clean. The detainees were like goats: they devoured everything. Whatever they didn’t eat right away, they dried and ate in the winter; and when any kind of animal fell into their hands, they ate that, too.
Despite these precautions, more than a hundred people died in our village every year—out of a population of two to three thousand. Many former Japanese residents were interned in 1976 and 1977, the year of my arrival in the camp. That period and the months that immediately followed were among the most murderous I ever knew at Yodok. The newly arriving prisoners were usually the first to die. If you made it through the adjustment period, though, you could expect to live for a good ten years more. The most important thing was fighting malnutrition, which was more punishing than even mistreatment by guards. Most of the camp’s diseases were not very serious, but in our weakened state a simple cold could kill. Psychological factors doubtless also played a role. Those who once lived in Japan were accustomed to a comfortable, modern existence and consequently suffered more than the others. For them, the adjustment to normal North Korean life had already been difficult enough. Many had hardly negotiated this transition when they suddenly found themselves transported to a concentration camp! The arrest itself was a brutal shock, a terrible blow to their spirit. These were people who pinned their every hope on Kim Il-sung and his brand of communism, and from one day to the next they saw themselves thrown into a camp, labeled traitors and sons of criminals, and treated as the lowest of slaves. It was more than many of them could take.
I almost died during my first months in the camp. The primary reason was the corn. Despite my grandmother’s tireless efforts to make it appetizing, after a certain point I just couldn’t digest it anymore. My problem was not in the least extraordinary: everyone struggled with it, though women for some reason had an easier time. I didn’t know of a single man who didn’t suffer at least one serious bout of diarrhea during his stay in Yodok. The ordeal, which generally lasted two or three months, would leave one thin and greatly weakened. The diarrhea was made all the worse by the ghastly conditions of the latrines. The filth was unspeakable. With the sparkling whiteness of our Pyongyang bathroom still fresh in my mind, just the sight of the small stinking huts was enough to make my stomach turn. There were only seven outhouses with four places each for an entire village of two to three thousand people. We did our business Turkish style, squatting over a tank we did our best not to dwell upon. No paper, of course. Each visitor had to come prepared with his own supply of sufficiently wide leaves. Bean and sesame leaves worked best. In July, during the rainy season, there was the danger of overflow; but it was much worse in winter, when the excrement froze and gradually built up toward the lip of the latrine. The detainees then were forced to choose between chiseling away at the growing mountain of excrement with a pickax or getting up in the middle of the night and digging a new hole of their own. If you chose the latter, it was worthwhile keeping track of the location, because you might later want to retrieve what you buried and use it to fertilize your vegetable bed.
Nineteen seventy-nine was probably even harder on my family than the preceding year. We’d faced the challenges of those fateful initial months, but weariness, malnutrition, and despair now nearly got the better of us. I was still friendless and often scorned by my teammates, who mistook my inability to keep pace for willful laziness. In the space of a few months or years, the camp had turned them into little savages. Several tried to provoke me and show me up, so that I would respect their would-be superiority. But having been in the camp since their early youth, they were all runts, and I didn’t let them push me around.
My stomachaches, however, continued unabated. I could feel my strength dwindling, and my three or four daily fits of diarrhea were not helping. Just as grievous, though, was the absence of my mother, whom I missed more poignantly with every passing day. My grandmother had long been at a loss to explain her absence, but in that year, 1979, the explanation finally came. One day a security agent summoned my father and announced to him that his wife had requested, and received, her divorce. Father doubted the process had been voluntary, but it was impossible for him to know for sure. The uncertainty deepened his sadness and anxiety. As for me, I couldn’t understand what it really meant. Grandmother—looking more haggard than I’d ever seen her—told me it meant that my mother would never come now and that it would be best for me to forget about her.
Despite her age, Mi-ho never faltered. She was always calm, even taciturn. An introvert, she never ceded to the temptation of outright rebellion and so she was never once beaten at school and only rarely punished with extra work. I didn’t see much of her during our years in the camp, but I know she has a heart of gold. While everyone else I knew would leap on their food and devour it as quickly as possible, Mi-ho often gave up her share to someone she suspected might be hungrier. And yet she worked as hard as anyone. How I pitied her when she came home at night, shoulders bowed with exhaustion, her face downcast and dirty. I could do nothing for her. I could do nothing for any of us. Today Mi-ho lives in North Korea, and I still can’t help her. She does appear in my dreams, though, where she is always running after me, but never with the anger and reproach that appear on my uncle’s face during his nocturnal visitations.
When news came that we wouldn’t be seeing our mother for a long time—and maybe never—I reacted less courageously than Mi-ho. I was devastated. I’d just turned twelve, and I remember wishing I would die soon. Everything became unbearable, and I no longer had the will to live. I was also very angry at my grandfather, believing he must have done something very bad to bring us so much misery. My grandmother tried to remind me what a good man he was and how much he loved me, but I was sure she was shielding me from his real crimes.
We got news of him only once, and that was a full three years after his disappearance. We discovered that he had been sent to Senghori, a camp some forty kilometers outside Pyongyang. Among people in the know, the prison was considered exceptionally brutal, but since it was located in a restricted military zone, hardly anyone among the general North Korean populace was aware of its existence. My grandfather had been sighted there by the father of a friend of mine, who was one of only a handful of men ever to survive that terrible place. His transfer to Yodok was a truly extraordinary event, but unfortunately, he had very little to tell me about my grandfather, beyond having seen him. Yet he did have quite a bit to relate about Senghori itself. He told me that its political prisoners were put to work in coal mines, where the pace and conditions were such that no one could hope to ever rejoin normal life—if such a thing can be said to exist in North Korea. He said several prisoners had once seen a group of fellow inmates exterminated. The witnesses were working on a mountain road when they were commanded to turn their backs while a truck passed. Disobeying orders, they watched as the truck stopped a little farther down the road. A group of prisoners were pulled out, lined up along a ditch, and shot. No one knew what they’d been accused of. Senghori ultimately was shut down after the publication of a report by Amnesty International that exposed the goings-on there. The existence of Yodok has also been criticized abroad, and I expect that camp number 15 will one day be as well known in Europe as it is in North Korea; but will the notoriety really help? While North Korean authorities would be happy to dispense with the bad publicity, the camp is too important, and holds too many people, to be closed or moved—unlike Senghori, which, though extremely severe, was considerably smaller.
Yongpyung, another hard-labor camp, is located within the Yodok complex itself. Its inmates are worked harder, locked up at night, and allotted less food. Located within Yodok’s high-security zone—where the unredeemables are held—Yongpyung is the location of the rice paddies used to feed the guard population. Redeemable prisoners accused of committing some particularly egregious act could also be transferred to Yongpyung. This is what happened to the family of my friend Choe Myun-ho after his father bashed a guard’s head in with a rock. A former top official in the Worker’s Party, Choe’s father was assigned to the gypsum quarry upon arriving at Yodok. It was a backbreaking, dangerous detail, on which laborers had to fill dozens of truckloads a day. His boy, Choe, was always being provoked and tormented by a particularly brutal guard infamous for whipping prisoners. When my friend’s father saw him spit in his son’s face, he became enraged and hit the guard over the head with a rock. The man collapsed and fell dead on the spot. The father was arrested and publicly executed at Kouep, one of Yodok’s two public execution sites, after which his family was transferred to Yongpyung.
In the first months of 1980, a rare happy circumstance befell our family. My uncle was transferred to the camp’s alcohol distillery. It was a major promotion and cause for the whole family to rejoice. Not only would my uncle be spared the grinding fatigue of farmwork, but by occasionally rerouting surplus inventory he could actually turn a little profit. The distillery jobs were among the most sought after in the camp. Work details in the gypsum quarry and the gold mine were reputedly the hardest and most dangerous. At the other end of the spectrum were the sweatshops, where my sister worked, and the farm produce shops, where the agents went to procure their cheese, bean curd, oil, and salt. (If the shops ever ran a surplus, the leftover foodstuffs were exported for sale outside the camp.) The coppersmith shop was also considered a good place to work, as was the joinery, where my father had been assigned to assist several seasoned craftsmen. But at the top of the list were the office jobs. We could imagine nothing better than sitting in an office, warm and sheltered from the winter cold. The lucky detainees selected for secretaryships were responsible for tracking major events: prisoner deaths and arrivals, the transport of goods in and out of the camp, the quantity of food distribution, and so forth. It was easy, human work, and it came with the assurance of shelter.
The agricultural teams like the one I was on could be occasionally pulled from the fields to help expedite a lagging production schedule elsewhere in the camp, or to lend a hand at the quarry. On a few occasions, I was temporarily assigned to work on construction sites, several of which were small dams. Every few months, camp authorities also trotted out their latest version of the “Let’s Earn Some Dollars for Kim Il-sung” campaign. These crusades were intended to make us heave with enthusiasm at the idea of harvesting exotic hardwoods, gathering wild ginseng, or producing whatever else the Party thought might fetch a few dollars on the free and open market.
But to return to the distillery. It produced three distinct types of brandy. The first two, distilled from corn and acorns, respectively, were intended for export and sale. The third, which counted snake as one of its ingredients, was reserved exclusively for the pleasure of our local guards. Before being added to the stew, the snakes were starved to death over a period of one month, which caused their venom to lose its toxicity. As far as I can recall, this spirit had no official name. Around the camp, we called it either Yodok Soul (literally, “Yodok Alcohol”), snake brandy, or Byungbung Soul, after the 5,000-foot-high mountain that is the native habitat for a rare medicinal plant sold as far away as Japan. The prisoners at Yodok always spoke with great confidence about the exceptional quality of the camp’s snake brandy, though I doubt any of them ever tasted it. The only prisoners who were ever admitted into the distillery were people who couldn’t or wouldn’t drink. In my ten years in the camp, I never saw a single prisoner drink so much as a drop of the local specialty.
My uncle was the distillery’s technical chief for seven years. No one had ever held the position for that long, and only the handful of detainees who worked in the guards’ office or in the bachelors’ kitchen ever enjoyed as many privileges. To land such a job, a prisoner needed to win the protection of a guard, which is what my uncle somehow managed to do. His ascent had begun with the unpleasant surprise of being called on to serve as an informant. My uncle was not overjoyed at the prospect but was afraid to refuse. He also knew that if his reports were sufficiently useless, he would be cut loose from the duty in no time anyway. As it turned out, my uncle’s reports were not bad, though, just innocuous. This avocation earned him a few packs of cigarettes and some extra food, but more importantly it gave him the chance to befriend a guard, whose good word later helped him get the job in the distillery. My uncle’s degrees in biochemistry, which gave him a competence in matters of distillation, no doubt also influenced the authorities’ decision. After becoming lord of the alcohol bottles, my uncle wielded enormous power and prestige in the camp, though his position was mined with countless dangers and intrigues. Security agents were always dropping by to ask for a bottle on the sly, which left my uncle with a very dubious choice. If he refused their request, the agents had no shortage of ways to exact their revenge; if he relented, he could run into serious trouble during the next production audit.
His work also came under the daily supervision of a security agent who was assigned to the distillery, a man not likely to forgive irregularities. My uncle had to play it slick, fulfilling his substantial clandestine distribution while making everything appear on the up and up. Pressured by a number of different guards—some of whom were rivals—my uncle had plenty to keep him up at night. One day he was called before a camp official who wanted him to admit he’d given alcohol to a colleague who ran the distillery. My uncle firmly denied the charges, guessing correctly that the interrogation stood on little but rumors and suspicions. The official wasn’t so easily put off, however, and at one point he suggested the sweatbox might help stir my uncle’s memory. The thought was almost enough to make him confess, except that a confession would land him in the sweatbox all the faster—and as a confirmed criminal, rather than a mere suspect. Moreover, the guards compromised by his confession would become his sworn enemies and make him pay for their troubles. He would also risk a transfer to Senghori or to one of the other camps of no return. So he kept his mouth shut. Toward 3:00 A.M., the tone of the interrogation changed. The official suddenly stood up, perfectly calm, and led him out of the office. Outside, he turned to my uncle and said, “Your silence is appreciated. Keep it up!”
The sweatbox is one of the harshest punishments imaginable, and since it could be used as retribution for the most trifling of offenses—offenses that would seem downright ridiculous on the outside—it was perpetually dangling over our heads. I exaggerate when I say “our heads”: it wasn’t used on kids. But when a relative was sent to the sweatbox, the whole family was scared, not knowing whether the loved one would make it out alive. Stealing three ears of corn, responding to a guard’s command with insufficient zeal, missing a role call, even if the absence clearly had no wrongful intent—any of these was reason enough for being sent to the sweatbox. Yet all were “faults” that anyone could commit—and often had to commit—to survive.
The sweatbox was located by the guard shack near the main entrance to the camp. The sweatbox was also a kind of shack, but much smaller than the guard’s and devoid of any openings. The way survivors described it—I was lucky enough never to suffer that torture—recalled the prison cell of Henry Carrère, a.k.a. Papillon. The box is shrouded in total darkness and its occupant is given so little to eat that he will devour anything that comes within arms’ reach, which is most often a wayward cockroach or centipede.
Among the prisoners I met in the camp was a celebrated former athlete who made a name for himself in Yodok by making it through a very long stint in the sweatbox. According to rumor, his survival secret was to eat every insect he could get his hands on. Whether or not true, it won him the nickname Cockroach. Park Seung-jin, as he was really named, had lived his earlier moment of glory back in the 1966 World Cup in England. That year, the North Korean team on which he played miraculously made it to the final round, where in the first game it managed a 1–0 victory against the mighty Italians. To celebrate their victory, the players went on a wild drinking binge and, by the end of the night, were seen carrying on in public with some girls. By the next game day—two days later—they still hadn’t fully recovered. The team nevertheless got off to a strong start, taking an early 3–0 lead against the Portuguese. But then they fell apart, and Portugal stormed back to win the game 5–3.
In Pyongyang, the national team’s barroom antics were judged bourgeois, reactionary, corrupted by imperialism and bad ideas. Upon arriving back in Korea, the whole team—save for Park Douik, who, suffering from stomach pains on the night of the party, had been forced to stay in his hotel room—was sent to the camps. Unfortunately for Park Seung-jin, his celebrity won him few favors in Yodok, as he discovered when he was caught stealing nails and cement from the camp’s construction materials shop where he worked. He denied all wrongdoing and lashed out at the accusing guard. His punishment was a three-month stint in the sweatbox, which he somehow miraculously survived. By the time I arrived at Yodok, he’d already been there almost twelve years. And he was still there when I left the camp, though by then he was much weakened.
The sweatbox breaks even the sturdiest of constitutions. It is possible to survive it, but the cost is often crippling and the aftereffects are almost always permanent. It is simply grisly: the privation of food; close confinement, crouching on one’s knees, hands on thighs, unable to move. The prisoner’s rear end presses into his heels so unrelentingly that the buttocks turns solid black with bruising. Hardly anyone exited the sweatbox on his own two feet. If the prisoner needed to relieve himself, he raised his left hand; if he was sick, he raised his right. No other gestures were allowed. No other movements. No words. If the watchman pacing back and forth in front of the sweatbox failed to notice the raised hand, well, that was too bad. The prisoner continued to wait in silence. If he talked, he was beaten; if he moved, he was beaten. And if it was not a beating he got, it was a special punishment: he was made to crouch over the septic pit for half an hour, with his hands behind his back and his nose bowed downward. In the realm of horror, only punitive forced labor withstands comparison to the sweatbox. In a way, the two are equal and opposite. With forced labor, one has to move without stopping, excavate mountains of earth, lift massive logs into the back of trucks—all at an infernal pace. If nothing useful needs doing, a useless task will work just as well: digging a hole or a trench, for example, then filling it right back up. According to the Yodok veterans, the one appreciable difference between punitive forced labor and the sweatbox was that the latter automatically added five years to one’s detention.