Ever since I was young, my body had been strong. In addition, since my father had died a long time before, I’d always disciplined myself to train hard, thinking that a man had to be strong. Therefore, when it came to strength, I could beat pretty much everyone else. That being said, when I graduated from junior high I was only 163cm tall and weighed about 62kg. I was just an ordinary teenage boy.
However, as I started doing unimaginably difficult prison labor, my body started to change little by little. Eventually, I grew into one of the stronger people in the prison.
Kwang Ho from Hamheung, Kim Se Do from up north in Hyesan, Yang Myung Hak the Head Caterer, the Woodwork section head, Choi Kwang Hyuk the Woodwork section foreman and Lumber section foreman Hwang Young Chul were the strongest people inside. They were the “honors” men in the prison. A strong physique, not a brain, is what a prisoner needs, so strong prisoners were treated really well. Among them, Hwang Young Chul the Lumbering section foreman from Musan, had the nickname “Hwang the superman.” Hwang was only 158 centimeters tall, making him relatively small, but he had the ability to carry several hundred kilograms of lumber all by himself. Even though I couldn’t beat them by any means, I also had good physical strength, and I was always the top worker during labor periods.
It was June, 2003. Just like other days, I did not spare myself. However, that day my waist got hurt. I was carrying a small oak tree across a stream, and had to jump about half a meter onto the bank. I felt a sharp pain in my back and collapsed. My right arm and shoulder were crushed by the tree. Normally I would have pushed the tree away and gotten up, but I couldn’t move.
‘How embarrassing!” I told myself, “Struggling because of this little tree?!”
But my body wasn’t listening to me. If I made the slightest movement, I felt an unimaginable pain in my waist, so I couldn’t move at all. The section head and caterer Ki Chul had to carry me all the way back to prison. Whenever they took a step forward, I screamed in pain. Nevertheless, we arrived at the prison, and I was admitted to the 2nd Clinic.
42 year old Lee Won Il was from Heungwon, up in Yangkang Province. He used to work in the 4th section, but had been admitted to the clinic a month before with 2nd degree malnutrition. He was a dove-eyed man who radiated warm-heartedness. I was right beside him in the clinic, and I’m glad to say he took great care of me for 20 days. Even taking care of one’s parents’ bodily wastes is distressing work. It really isn’t easy to do that for a complete stranger. To this day, I’m so thankful to him for taking care of me that way.
“How old are you?”
He knew that I was the foreman of the Logging section, so he asked me with respect. At first sight, I also wanted to talk to him.
“What section are you?”
“How are you hurt?”
At this he gave a sad smile; he probably felt a little embarrassed to admit that he was suffering from malnutrition. When someone suffers from malnutrition in prison it means that his family does not look after him. So it is a big psychological blow.
“How old are you?”
Frankly, patients suffering malnutrition must feel glad when a section head or a foreman gets admitted to the clinic; as if they won the lottery or something. Normally they can’t even get near such people. However if the malnourished take care of them while they are in bed and leave a good impression, it can be useful for them. That is why even old prisoners suck up to foremen and section heads. I could see that expectation in Lee’s eyes.
From my first day in the clinic, he took care of me with all his heart. He took care of my body wastes and helped me change my position whenever I felt tired. However I had to leave the clinic after only a month, since an outbreak of disease was spreading rapidly through the prison and they had to fill the three clinic rooms with patients suffering from it. It was pretty sudden, so Lee and I had to split without even saying goodbye.
Even ten days after I left the clinic, I could only walk haltingly. Nevertheless, I immediately went to find Lee and tried my best to help him. Rather than thinking that I had to repay him, I truly wished that he’d be healthy again. Nevertheless, even before he could get over the malnutrition, he caught the disease and was admitted to the clinic again, along with seven people from my section alone. I tried to help them get well, but I was soon struck by the disease too and was swiftly on my way back to the clinic again.
There were just not enough clinic rooms to accommodate all the patients, so management turned a small room beside the Freshmen section into another clinic and put all the other infected people in there. No matter how many died, the executives just scolded the clinic doctors instead of thinking of ways to solve the problem. Some security officials even took away medicine from the pockets of the doctors. Come to think of it, though, even the families of the security officials were suffering from the disease, so where on earth could enough medicine for prisoners like us be found? Either way, I was suffering from a high fever too, so I could not afford to think about anyone else. I was sent back to the cell after just 15 days, because I was looking relatively healthy. When I got back, I recognized that some people were missing.
“Sung Hyuk. Yong Ho. Ki Bum. Young Hwan. Where did they all go?”
“While you were sick, three of them died and the other seven are still in the clinic,” the section head told me with a sad look on his face.
My heart ached, but I was not surprised at all. When you stay in prison for long enough, you stop showing much emotion. You just remain seated and silent. Even when something shocking happens, you keep your feelings to yourself instead of showing them. My heart felt so empty, so I went for a walk around the prison. In every section, there were people dying of disease. About a hundred people had died in three months. I only found out later, but Lee Won Il, who took such good care of me in the beginning, had died too. Back then I was too sick to cry over it, so even when I heard the news I did not feel anything.
After that, the disease recurred three times. The number of contaminated people increased, and even the section head got sick. The atmosphere in the clinic was really creepy. Flies were all over the patients’ faces, which made me so angry. I wanted to catch them, but I couldn’t get the patients to catch them, so I just gave up.
‘Even you flies are looking down on us because we are prisoners?” I asked them ruefully.
The epidemic which swept and re-swept the prison killed 190. What was most strange was that the majority of the dead people were newly-admitted ones. Anyway, when the epidemic was gone, one day in September, we all gathered in the hall.
“From now on, thanks to the affection of General Kim Jong Il, our great leader and the supreme commander of Korean People’s Army, we are happy to announce an increase in the rations of the prisoners!”
“Hurray! Long live the General! Hurray!”
The prisoners’ cheers for the General spread throughout the hall on the security official’s command.
From then on, approximately one extra spoonful of rice was distributed. But, because of that rice, we prisoners had to suffer a lot more. Every day after dinner, lectures and seminars about ‘ways to pay our Leader back’ began. Every prisoner had to write a letter and shout out Kim’s famous sayings each and every night. For a spoonful of extra rice, they made us sit and do that for two and a half hours, every day. This was like giving us a single candy but taking away a sack of rice. We soon wished that they would just take back the spoonful of rice and stop the incessant studying.