Prison left me with a lot of pain, and many more painful memories.
It was only few days after I was placed in the Logging Section. When the bell rang, everyone woke up and kneeled to wait for the guard to come, only to find Young Hoon still asleep. Without a thought, I shook his shoulders. But there was no reaction. I pulled him up by the arms, but his legs didn’t take up the weight. I was a bit surprised, so I took a look down at his face.
He was already dead.
I shouted out his name in horror, and everyone grew mournful. I, however, did not cry. I could not speak either. I just stared blankly at his face. His body was still there during breakfast. We reported his death to the security official in charge only after breakfast had been served. It was callous, but we needed his share of rice for one of the prisoners suffering from malnutrition.
Young Hoon was a soldier who had deserted out of starvation. He was sentenced to two years, but died after just 4 months. When he was admitted, he was already suffering from first degree malnutrition. It was impossible for him to deal with harsh prison life. Leaving behind his loving parents and sisters in North Pyongan Province, he died in a prison cell at the tender age of 23. His dream of returning to his hometown as a hero and his hopes of making his parents proud by becoming a member of the Workers’ Party had ended in nothing, just a handful of ash in Jeongeu-ri Reeducation Camp.
Even after that, many people died. Lim Il Chul, Kang Dong Seop, Kim Young Nam, Park Sang Chul and many others died in labor accidents or from malnutrition within a month. Back then an average of 30 to 40 corpses a month were cremated in a huge charcoal burner on top of a mountain called “Mt. Bulmang.” You know, they say that even a fox, when his time is up, goes back to his own cave and dies there. But not in North Korea. Dead bodies were not sent home. I can still hear so clearly parents and siblings weeping, right after receiving news of a loved one’s death.
The sadness was unbearable as we watched them going up Mt. Bulmang. Not being able to show it openly, we shed bitter tears deep inside as we said silent goodbyes. But we weren’t allowed to say anything other than ‘Let’s study hard!’ and ‘Let’s work in order to wash way our sins!’ They made us spy on one another, and if anyone made a mistake the person who was supposed to have been watching him was punished too. And if anyone ever made a political statement, criticized society or complained, he disappeared without a word. No wonder everyone was so frightened and would not speak openly. We could not even cry on our own or comfort the dead. It was a tragedy.
There was one case where a father and a son were admitted to prison together, but the father died of malnutrition after only three months. I cannot imagine how the son felt, watching his father going to Mt. Bulmang but being strictly forbidden from crying. Whenever I saw a prisoner’s family weeping and wailing, after coming to visit only to find out that their son had died, I thought about how my mother would feel going through the same pain as them. For that reason, I promised myself that whatever it took, I would go back to my mother safe and alive.