After I’d returned to the reeducation camp, Mom and other relatives continued to send food—none of which I received. At the camp, if you wanted to get food delivered to an inmate, you had to give alcohol or a pack of cigarettes to each of the guards. Mom, living in such a destitute situation, didn’t have money for those kinds of brand-name cigarettes.
For anyone else, the guards either ate the food themselves or gave it to their sidekick (an inmate that did favors for them). So it was that even in the camp, people with a little clout were able to eat food from home while people like me were always left hungry.
There’s probably no other place on earth that plays such shameful and torturous tricks like North Korean prisons. The “people-centered society” is a farce. The atrocious chatter of the staff always kept us on the edge of fear and disgust.
Cheol Min, a 21 year-old guard, would make the inmates open their mouths and spit inside when he was in a bad mood. This happened enough that, finally, fed-up inmates brought it up with state officials during a routine inspection. The spit problem disappeared, but in return a good clubbing was that much more frequent.
There were cases of rape. Once, the guard in charge of cell number three raped a 32 year-old woman from the cell. On top of that, he threatened her, saying that if she blabbed about the incident to anyone, she’d spend the rest of her life rotting in the camp. She had come to the prison after being caught working in China. She’d gone to China because just getting enough food to eat was difficult at home. Later, when her husband heard about it, he divorced her. She went into hiding.
If one of the cells started to stink, Seong Hyuk, one of the cell guards, would take ice water from the prison toilet room and splash it around in the cell. Our cells weren’t heated so, when that happened, we’d spend long cold winter days in the cell shivering to death.
Also, it was standard practice to punish all the inmates in a cell, even if only one of them had done something wrong.
If the guards were feeling moody, they’d make the inmates hang from the bars of the cell. The first one to fall got a clubbing. The guards seemed wildly entertained by this image of 12 people pressed together clinging to the bars. The inhumanity of their sport made the blood curdle.
The camp toilets always reeked. The toilet would flush only if the water tank in the guards’ bathroom was turned on. This was an annoying task to the guards, who only turned it on once a day. Even the idea of the inmates having to use the toilet was irritating for them.
So inmates getting flogged because they went to the bathroom without reporting it to the guards and inmates suffering from constipation were the norm.
Above the cell toilet was a small ventilation window. From there the 12 inmates would take turns smoking in secret while the others kept watch from below. Hanging from the window they would take three puffs each, letting the smoke escape from the small hole.
The guards would smoke sitting next to the stove and when they were done they would toss their cigarette butts on the ground. We smoked those.
Picking up these cigarette butts was quite a feat really. I pulled threads from my blanket then I carefully weaved together to make a thin five meter line. Then using the socks that my mother had made me I tied the line to the end of one of the socks, fed it through the narrow food hole and tossed it down next to the stove. Meanwhile someone else would stand watch to let us know whether or not a guard was coming in the gate.
Using this sock and rope contraption we would drag the left-over cigarette butts into the cell. The inmates in neighboring cells saw this and soon learned the same trick. It wasn’t long before everyone had a cord-and-sock contraption, and the competition over cigarette butts became pretty stiff.
They say, “The long tail gets caught.” So it was with us. Cell number six was finally caught by a guard one day fishing for something to smoke. That day number six’s inmates were punished till the floor ran with sweat and the inmates collapsed in exhaustion.
There might be no end if I begin talking about the terrible human rights violations of North Korean reeducation camps. The guards would gather all the food our families had sent us next to the stove and with their feet would inch the food forward toward the food hole.
When it was finally time to eat, they’d dump all that food into a bucket and with a big ladle would stir and mash it all together and gave it to the inmates like animal feed. It was the kind of thing you wouldn’t even do to a dog.
And when they were in a bad mood the guards would deliberately splash boiling soup into the face of the inmate receiving food at the food hole. The inmates got scalded of course.
They ran nails through the oak clubs they used to beat the inmates, often leaving them half dead. These kinds of atrocities can’t be forgiven, not with any tool of retribution invented by man.
It’s history now but during my trial my so-called lawyer said only one thing—“Since he’s young I recommend a reduced sentence.” Still I was happy about it because camp staff members seemed to think I’d get at least ten years. The judge gave me just seven years and silently I shouted for joy. (to be continued)