The Quiet Shadow – Part 2

Part 1 of this two-part series about the MSS can be found here.

When things had just started to quiet down after the election, a rumor that the quiet shadow had finally been caught by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) swept through Chongjin like wildfire. The question of the quiet shadow’s identity once again became the center of public attention. 

The quiet shadow was revealed to be none other than Kim Young Hoon, a party secretary for a medium-sized business in the city. It was determined by the MSS during their investigation that his handwriting was the same as the one used in the level-one vandalism incident before the election. Chongjin was set abuzz with the news that Kim had been dragged in shackles to the local MSS office under accusations of being a spy and an enemy of the state. 

I could hardly believe the rumors, so I took it upon myself to ask one of my friends whose husband worked in the MSS for details about what exactly had happened. I barely even knew Kim, but for some reason I felt deeply saddened by the news of his arrest.

Kim was in his early forties and from a good family. His father had been a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). During the almost ten years Kim had worked as a party secretary, he was known as being fiercely loyal to the regime and was well respected by the men he worked with. 

Despite being a secretary, he would frequently spend time on the floor with the regular workers helping them with their labor. Kim quickly gained recognition among high-level party officials for his steadfast loyalty to the regime and his hardworking attitude. 

When Kim was arrested, everyone seemed to have something to say. Some people said that spies like Kim always pretend to be loyal and hardworking to avoid suspicion, while others said that the party had made a mistake in promoting Kim to secretary. Some even said that Kim just wasn’t able to handle the pressure of being responsible for so many people.

On the other hand, there were some who had experience working with Kim and spoke out in his defense. They lamented the fact that he was arrested and claimed that he was a good person and had been wrongfully accused. Many even vouched for him, pleading his innocence to MSS officials who came to interview people as a part of their investigation.

Nothing of what Kim’s supporters said made any difference, however. The sincere words of those defending Kim fell on deaf ears in the MSS. 

The innocent shadow

As a part of Kim’s interrogation, MSS officials forced him to submit to several more writing tests. After it was determined that he was guilty, Kim became the victim of daily beatings. Despite being tortured by the MSS, Kim continued to deny his guilt. In fact, he was just telling them the truth. 

No matter how many times Kim pleaded his innocence, no MSS official would listen to him. Kim found himself thrown into an impossible situation. He was isolated from the rest of the world in a small prison cell with no way of clearing his name. 

Orders were given to use whatever means necessary to extract a confession out of him. The local MSS officials were under intense pressure from their higher-ups to quickly wrap-up the case.

The interrogators would beat Kim every day, covering him in bruises and leaving his entire body caked with blood. If Kim passed out during the beatings, they would throw cold water on him to wake him up and repeat the process. The beating only stopped when they got tired of hitting him. Despite the intensity of the interrogations, Kim refused to give up and confess. He knew all too well what would happen to his family if he acknowledged the charges against him. 

It is common practice in North Korea to send the entire extended family of a person guilty of a serious crime to a political prison camp, or at least to an isolated area in the mountains. In either place, his family would be forced to live a miserable existence and treated no better than animals. Kim resolved to protect his wife and children from this fate and it was this determination that motivated his repeated denials of the charges laid against him by the MSS.  

Kim’s steadfastness amounted to nothing more than a candle in the wind in front of the absolute power of the MSS, however. It was well known that if you ended up inside an MSS prison, there was no way out except in a body bag. There had been many North Koreans that were never heard from again after a couple of strong drinks and a slip of the tongue to the wrong person. 

There is nothing I can say to fully express my emotions over the thought of Kim spending his last days on earth alone in a windowless prison cell just three meters wide and three meters long. Although harboring a grudge wasn’t going to save Kim from his fate, I imagine Kim must have wished he had never been born in North Korea. 

Despite his worsening condition, the MSS continued their gruesome torture tactics. Threatened by the demands of the government to quickly close the case, the MSS intensified their efforts to make Kim confess. 

When it was apparent that Kim’s condition was starting to become unstable, the MSS tried to cajole him by telling him that they would “save him” if he just confessed to the act of vandalism.

Kim mustered up every bit of strength he had and retorted, “Whatever I do, I’m going to die anyway. Do whatever you want. Beat me some more, kill me already. You aren’t going to believe what I say, so you might as well kill me. Please! Kill me!” 

This infuriated his interrogators, prompting an intense beating during which his interrogators yelled, “You don’t have the right to die until you confess what you did! Tell us! Tell us, then die, you bastard!” At the end of the beating, Kim died. Just six months had passed between his arrest and untimely death at the hands of the MSS. 

No one knows what happens to the remains of those that die in MSS prisons. They aren’t sent to the family of the deceased; they just disappear. The MSS reportedly used 2,200 volts of electricity to turn Kim’s body into dust. Immediately after his death became known, his family was branded the “the family members of a traitor” and sent to a political prison camp.

That was the end for Kim, who turned out to be innocent. 

Kim’s truth revealed

One year after Kim died, the Chongjin office of the MSS received word from their counterparts in Sinuiju that they had apprehended the culprit of the level-one vandalism incident. The suspected offender had confessed to vandalizing toilets in Chongjin right before the 1988 Supreme People’s Assembly election while being interrogated for an unrelated incident. 

A writing sample was sent to the Chongjin MSS office for analysis and was found to be a perfect match for the sample taken from the level-one incident.

The MSS realized in that moment that they had made a huge mistake, but what were they to do? Kim was already dead and there was no way for the MSS to even know if his family was alive or not. Eventually the news of Kim’s wrongful conviction spread throughout the city and caused unrest among its residents.    

Instead of doing the right thing and try to exonerate Kim’s family, local MSS officials decided to cover up their mistake. They wanted to protect themselves from any possible disciplinary repercussions that might occur if news of their mistake reached their superiors. In the end, Kim’s family was never informed of his innocence. If they are still alive, it’s clear they are still serving their sentence in a political prison camp somewhere in North Korea.

Stories like this are a dime a dozen in North Korea. One of my friend’s fathers said the wrong thing once after a few too many drinks and was dragged to a political prison camp. He didn’t last a year before he keeled over and died. There are still many innocent people suffering in political prison camps in North Korea. It’s a deplorable situation that does not yet show any signs of getting better. 

To the ill-fated souls sent to these camps, I pray for your peaceful passage to the other side. There will come a day when the cruel injustices you have suffered will come to light, and we will be able to put an end to this nightmare in North Korea.  

The author of this piece is from North Korea and is a journalist at Daily NK.

*Translated by Brian Boyle

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