The author of this excruciating memoir led an unquestioning life in North Korea until one of the routine checks experienced by the citizens of that country revealed that his father had perhaps been engaged in “espionage.”
The North Korean state attributed collective guilt to the families of political wrongdoers. The perceived perpetrators usually were sentenced to hardest labor in the coal mines. The children and grandchildren also had to labor for as long as “the criminal in the family” was alive. Prison camps were (and are) provided for these various malefactors.
It was in one of the worst that Kim Yong was incarcerated from 1993 to 1999. Torture was routine: sleep deprivation, bamboo slivers driven under the fingernails, hung by the wrists until the flesh tore, confined for days in a tiny cell, unable to move.
Even worse than such unbearable physical ordeals, the author writes, was the feeling of betrayal. He had been completely loyal to “Dear Leader” Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il: “I worked harder than anyone else I know . . . I worshiped them as feverishly as those revolutionary heroes in the movies.”
Guilt by association was injustice enough and “the feeling of betrayal became the worst possible torture.”
Gradually, anger overcame fear. “I felt like an idiot for having given my life for the Great Leader, whom everyone was brainwashed to believe was a living god.”
He was also beginning to understand the circumstances that had led to his imprisonment. “It was at the time when Kim Jong Il was launching a massive revolutionary struggle to consolidate his position. The campaign was aimed at creating fear and subsequent obedience among those who doubted his leadership. Whether I really was a spy or not would not have mattered that much.”
So, for years Kim Yong labored in mines over 650 meters underground, and was subjected to daily abuse and torture. He saw children forever separated from their parents, and heard about other horrors: “Stories about how the guards injected salty water into pregnant women’s wombs and dug out the fetuses with spoons. And it was no secret that starved inmates would eat the aborted fetuses instead of discarding them after the surgery.”
These and other daily nightmares inspired Kim Yong to attempt an escape. No one had ever succeeded in doing so from the gulag in which he was kept, but with the benefit of many small miracles which he describes with engrossing skill, he managed to cross the border into China. From there, further adventures led him into Mongolia and South Korea.
Yet, even after he had put nations between himself and the gulag, Kim Yong found there was much that he had not left behind. Asked by another Korean to account for the Korean War, he gave the standard North Korean answer: “American imperialists instigated the South Korean puppets to invade our brothers and sisters in the north.” And then, for the first time, he learned the truth — that on June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung had launched an attack on South Korea and three days later North Korean invaders were in Busan.
“Ideology is a strange thing,” he writes. “Mysteriously addictive and stubbornly unchanging. I was arrested, tortured and sentenced to slow death by hard labor by the North Korean regime,” yet when he learned the truth about the beginnings of the Korean War, “I could not help but feel offended that what I believed to be historical truth had been challenged.”
In the midst of horror Kim Yong remains an honest observer. His dispassionate account of how one man endured the unendurable offers a clue as to how such extreme inhumanity can occur. It may be because of fear and greed, because of indifference and a refusal to feel, because of the paranoid bureaucracy of a failed state. In recent decades alone there have been so many examples (by individuals and governments) of “inhuman” behavior that we must conclude that being inhuman is a part of being human. This is not a popular conclusion and it will always be a contentious one, but Kim Yong’s honesty and resolve will bring most readers a little closer to seeing it as an unpalatable truth.