01 November 2005

Aliens Invade NK Prison Camp

In the summer of 1982, my situation improved further. I finally made a friend. The camp had received two new prisoners, space aliens practically, whose extraordinary clothes and looks reminded us of our lost world. They were an elegant woman with dark glasses and her handsomely attired son, whose delicate white skin contrasted invidiously with our own, which the sun, wind, and snow had tanned into leather. Our jaws dropped when we saw them.

Within a few months their finely cut clothes would lose all their charm. The woman stopped wearing her glasses; she and her son looked just like everybody else in the camp. Less than a year after their incarceration, the boy, whose name was Yi Sae-bong, fell seriously ill and couldn't move his legs. Fortunately his paralysis didn't last. At first we had a hard time communicating, because having grown up in Japan, he only knew a few words of Korean; but he learned the language quickly and was soon able to tell me how he arrived in Yodok. He was a little older than I was and his family had lived in Kyoto, the city with the most powerful Chosen Soren cell outside the homeland. When the Party leadership in Pyongyang chose Han Duk-su to head the Japanese wing, the Kyoto cell protested. Han Duk-su, they said, was being parachuted in; he had never done anything for the struggle in Japan. The opponents backed down when they learned Kim Il-sung himself was backing the controversial nomination, but by this time the Great Leader's embittered candidate was determined to exact revenge. Many members of the Kyoto cell wound up in the camps. They had opposed the will of Han Duk-su and, by extension, that of Kim Il-sung, and this was a crime that could not be easily forgiven.

Like so many who hadn't understood the danger, Yi Sae-bong's father decided to move his family back to North Korea. He planned to come first, then send for his wife, three sons, and daughter. Shortly after arriving, however, he was arrested for espionage and sent to a hard-labor camp. When weeks passed without a word, Yi Sae-bong and his mother came to North Korea to try to find out what had become of him. Instead of receiving information, they were arrested and sent to Yodok.

I loved to hear Yi Sae-bong's stories about Japan. I was amazed by all its brands of beer-imported from all over the world--and by the huge black American soldiers that walked the streets. My imagination soared at the mention of France, England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia--the latter inspiring particular wonder. What most sparked my interest were the thick, juicy steaks people ate with a knife and fork. I wanted to know how they were cooked, what they were garnished with, the side dishes that accompanied them. I was sad I couldn't imagine the taste of catsup and offended by the rampant wastefulness, which included the lighthearted dumping of half-eaten meals. More shocking was my friend's contention that grocers sold fruits the whole year round. I was almost ready to suspect him of lying. It was either that or believe that Japan really was a paradise--a possibility that, despite my father and uncle's warm recollections, I still found difficult to admit.

Yi Sae-bong was the person who really introduced me to Japan. I hassled him constantly for details about his school, the traffic, the movies, the department stores. I was amazed at his description of the automobile assembly lines, where robots put entire cars together in a matter of minutes. The most astounding things, though, were the toilets: they had chairs where you could sit and read a paper, or have a cup of coffee. It seemed so incredible to me. The first time Yi Sae-bong went to the bathroom at Yodok, he threw up.
SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 119-121

No comments: