Generally people feel that spring is beautiful. However, we prisoners call it “stepmother spring,” since spring starvation torments us as a wicked stepmother does her stepchild. Summer is called “mosquito summer.” Autumn, on the other hand, is called “mother autumn,” while winter is called “neckless winter.” In winter it is so cold that we duck our heads so we look as if we don’t have a neck.
In the prison, tasks for the day differ according to official orders. One day, chopping trees was given to our first branch. The second branch was given bank revetment work, while the third branch was divided into two groups and set to work on cleaning up the washroom and building a pigsty.
The head security official took the first group of the third branch to his house. Young Soo, a sentry, went with the bank revetment team, and the other sentry, Jung Cheol, went with us. I and my 14 teammates took our axes and chains and left for our destination in the mountains, Wongol.
The task was for each one of us to cut down a lime tree with a diameter of at least 25 centimeters and a height of at least three meters. Wongol was about four kilometers away from the prison, so we had to hurry. However, I was finding it tough since I was really tired from doing too much on the bank revetment task the day before. I told my teammates to hold my pace and climb slowly.
Something must have been wrong with Jung Cheol that day, though, because he continued to curse us, urging us to go faster. I pretended not to hear him and went on marching.
“Hey Jun Ha! I said run! Run to Wongol!” Jung Cheol shouted. “Sir,” I implored him, “the guys are exhausted from yesterday’s bank revetment work. We could go slower. Anyway, as long as we get back before the deadline, it’s okay, right?” Jung Cheol was having none of it, “Stop all this bullshit and just run,” he yelled.
I didn’t want to argue with him anymore, so I was running before the words left his mouth. The clanking sounds from the iron chains echoed as we ran. I told my teammates to keep up with me and went on. I continued to speed up until the distance between Jung Cheol and us had grown fairly long, and then slowed down.
“What a retard! It’s no wonder he doesn’t understand us when he gets to shove down all that breakfast before he starts work,” I grumbled loudly.
I had openly cursed Jung Cheol and, upon hearing that, my teammates laughed, saying that I was a great person. As we passed by the village for security officials and started climbing the mountain, we ran into the Vice-warden. The houses of the Vice-warden, the Political head and some other executives were about 50m away from the village. It seemed that he had been working on something at night and was going home now, in the morning. He called us over.
“Hey! Who is the head here?” he asked.
“I am the foreman,” I told him, “The cell head went to work on the bank revetments.”
“It seems that you’re in the Logging Section. Where’s the sentry?” the Vice-warden inquired.
“He’s catching us up,” I told him.
Jung Cheol was running with his hat in his hands from the corner of the street. When he saw the Vice-warden he was startled; he stood to attention and saluted.
“It’s you, Jung Cheol! Why are you alone?”
“Oh sir, Young Soo is with the bank revetment team…” Jung Cheol said, before trailing off.
“Then you should have told the garrison and brought a guard with you! Why did you come alone?”
Upon hearing the irritated Vice-warden’s orders, Jung Cheol instructed us to return to base.
“Oh man, if he had just listened to the foreman and walked he wouldn’t have run into the Vice-warden,” one member of the team pointed out quietly, chuckling.
Upon our return, Jung Cheol reported in and soon a younger sentry had fixed his bayonet and joined us, frowning. As we left the garrison, Jung Cheol suddenly started swearing at me.
“Jun Ha! You son of a bitch! You shouldn’t have run so fast like that!”
“You are the one who told me to run,” I pointed out.
“Don’t you dare talk back to me!” he shouted back.
In North Korea, there is a saying that goes, “A mother-in-law’s anger makes you kick your dog.” Young Jung Cheol was so angry that he was going to “kick” me instead. Indeed, he was about to kick me literally. However, he knew me well. He was well aware that it would even be harder for him to control me if he tried to defeat me with violence.
As I was already used to life in prison; I knew the fact that sentries were not allowed to beat up the prisoners. The more the sentries tried to beat me up, the more I stood up to them. So he didn’t hit me. On the mountain, we had a scoop of rice, cut down the lime trees in fairly short order and began to head down.
But on the way downhill my wood suddenly stopped moving. I was shocked, but when I looked back, I found the young sentry sitting on it, as happy as a child playing on a slide. My wood was very thick, so it was just right for building pieces of furniture. Not only that, it was also flat, so it was comfortable to sit on.
But it was springtime and the snow on the valley had started to melt, which made the ground wet and tacky. The downhill came to an end and we started to go uphill. Even then, he didn’t show any signs of getting off. I cursed him in my head, but I couldn’t let my feelings show.
I tried so hard to go up the slope, while that young sentry on the wood giggled, saying “You really are so strong! Why don’t you drag me all along the way to the gate?” I tried to put up with the anger and disdain, and then a good idea came to me.
I pretended that I was struggling, and let the wood bump hard against a huge rock. Trying to balance himself, the young sentry struggled with his rifle like a flapping crow, but he ended up falling onto the muddy ground with the wood.
Then he stood up and tried to hit me with his rifle. I ducked down to dodge his attack. Then he wielded his rifle like a knight; his knees hit my back, however, and he toppled once again.
I looked around, and found that Jung Cheol and other teammates were watching the young sentry and me. The young sentry sprang at me again and I, instinctively, defended myself against the butt plate heading towards my face.
I only wanted to block the rifle, but somehow it ended up in my hands. I was stunned to be gripping the rifle, and so was the young sentry. We looked at each other and the rifle without knowing what to do.
I was the first one to hear Jung Cheol cock his own gun. I immediately put the rifle on the ground, stepped back and collapsed. Jung Cheol picked up a wooden club and started beating me.
The young sentry began kicking me as well. I shielded my face with my hands and just let them get on with it. Jung Cheol hit me about 10 times but then gave up. However, the young sentry was crazy, and cursed me for quite some time.
I think that day was more of an unlucky day for them, though, for the official who had taken a crew home to build a pigsty hadn’t been able to finish the work due to a lack of timber, and he was coming up the mountain we were working on after being severely criticized by the Vice-warden….
The official saw the young sentry beating me up and Jung Cheol just watching it. He, already angry at Jung Cheol, kicked the young sentry and punched Jung Cheol in the head.
“Why did you hit me!“ Jung Cheol grumbled.
“I told you to be careful not to be seen by the executives,” the official said, “but you were caught by the Vice-warden? And why the hell are you bullying this kid?”
Surely he hadn’t thought about that when he was beating me up himself, but probably it made him angry to see another person beat up a prisoner who was under his control.
“He took my rifle. You don’t even know what happened,” Jung Cheol claimed.
The official asked me about the whole thing, and I told him every single bit of the story.
“Told you! You got yourself in trouble! Aren’t you embarrassed in front of this bunch of thieves?” he asked Jung Cheol. “Oh, come on sir, you’re taking his side way too much,” the guard complained. “Forget it. You’re not even worth talking to. Hey you! Take the wood and go back to the prison now!”
I stuck out my tongue and smiled at my teammates who were all stood watching the situation, astonished. Turning our backs so that they could not see us, we giggled and ran off back to the prison. We were happier than ever.